The kind-hearted woman's appearance in a flaming red canton-flannel nightgown, her hair comically "done up" for the night, was grotesque. But Cristy did not laugh. Instead, she asked for Thorlakson and cried out in dismay to learn that he was not there—that he had taken the handcar and had gone off with the two Norwegians to visit Bilodeau, the foreman on the section below.
Cristy poured out her story, at least as much of it as she thought would convey the urgency of the situation; but it was rather difficult to make the woman grasp it, Mrs. Thorlakson's English being somewhat limited, while the girl had no knowledge whatever of Icelandic. At last she gave it up.
"May I have some biscuits or something from the pantry?" she asked, and at the woman's nod she rummaged around among crocks and pans in search of portable edibles. She stuffed a handful of stale doughnuts inside her shirtwaist, together with a lump of cheese.
Mrs. Thorlakson stood at the door with the lamp held high in one hand, peering in upon these operations in dumb wonderment. When she finally realized that the girl purposed setting off along the track on foot, she became loud in her protests. Cristy made out that she was anxious about the sprained ankle; but this was so entirely better that it had given her no trouble at all so far and she merely laughed away the good woman's fears and, with a hasty good-bye, ran out of the house and disappeared in the dark. For several minutes Mrs. Thorlakson continued to stand in the doorway, the lamp above her head, her face shining in the mellow glow with a queer mixture of apprehension and mystification. These city people were beyond her comprehension.
Cristy hesitated a moment as to which direction she should take. She knew that Indian Creek was west and she knew also that she and Kendrick had walked that eastern stretch of track for miles and miles. She turned west.
At first she ran, experiencing a thrill of satisfaction that her ankle seemed to be almost as good as it ever was. Lack of breath soon slackened her pace to a walk. There was a long trudge ahead of her before she could hope to reach the station above and the wisdom of conserving her energies was evident. She had no idea how far away the station might be—possibly a couple of miles; more likely many more. She had heard the foreman say his section was about nine miles long, but she was ignorant as to how much of it lay west of the shanty. She hoped devoutly that the station was not too far away. Time was precious. Time was everything.
The night had grown cloudy and dark. She could not see more than a few feet away; but that was nothing. All she had to do was to keep on walking as fast as she could until she got to the next station up the line. After that she merely had to sit down at a table in the station-agent's room and write up the whole story for her paper. The operator and the Recorder would do the rest. She would send a flash wire to notify Brennon, the night editor, what to expect and she would send a special message to McAllister that would send him jumping for the Chief of Police.
The Recorder was a morning paper. It did not go to press until about four a.m., and they could hold it beyond that hour if necessary. That part of it was all right if they could only get the police into action in time to catch the scoundrels who were plotting at Waring's house. If all went well she might expect to reach the wire by midnight. They would have her story in type in plenty of time if there was no wire trouble. That was a chance which she would have to take. It might be, of course, that Nickleby and Rives had acted already; but hardly likely, she thought.
She could not afford to fail. She MUST not fail! There was no use in trying to rake up obstacles until she came to them. All sorts of possibilities for failure at the Toronto end occurred to her; but she shut her lips tight together and thrust these doubts aside angrily.
Just then she tripped on a cross-tie, stumbled and fell. Her heart leaped in fright at thought of the ankle and she tested it anxiously; but it seemed all right. She would have to pay more attention to her feet. Here now she had gone and skinned the palm of her hand for nothing and lost two doughnuts out of her waist! There was comfort in the knowledge that there were no cattleguards to tumble into in this lonesome stretch of wild Algoma.
She hurried on, straining her eyes at the barrier of gloom that rose a few yards ahead. And out of it kept springing faint grotesque shapes that changed themselves slowly, resolving into dim rocks and bushes, telegraph poles and high embankments, finally melting away behind her and losing their identity in the gloom from which they came. But through it all, ever the same, the never-ending length of track undulated in slow measure beneath her feet. Overhead the sky was filled with drifting shadow hosts.
The night blackened. The heavens seemed to draw down upon her and fantastic ghost creatures of her disordered fancy crept hungrily in. The warm air hung heavy and still between the flanking forest walls and she might have been lost in some unreal world but for the rough insistence of the roadbed through the thin soles of her shoes.
She stopped. A loud rustle of the bushes a few feet away in the dark set her pulses beating foolishly. Some animal was there, she knew, and breaking into a run, she fled from the spot, halting only when her breath gave out. She found herself walking rapidly, agitated and alert, shuddering with a nameless fear that was getting on her nerves. She caught herself looking over her shoulder, haunted by the idea that she was being followed. There seemed to be stealthy, padded footfalls behind her in the enveloping darkness and numberless eyes that peered as she passed—small, glowing dots in pairs, close together, that were gone when she looked a second time. Was it only imagination or were the soft steps behind her increasing in number? She recalled stories of wolf packs that had tracked down human beings and had torn them to pieces! She stood still and listened. But there was nothing—nothing but blackness and infinite silence.
Very sharply she took herself to task. She must not become nonsensical like this. There had been noises in the underbrush the other night when she and he—"Rabbits," he had said. And who ever heard tell of a rabbit attacking a person? They were given big ears to hear well, so that they could use their long legs for running away from everything. The idea of her being afraid of a rabbit!
She laughed nervously. If only she had a revolver or some weapon. Off the track she was in an instant, groping about in the ballasting for a large stone. She found two and walked on more confidently, carrying one in each hand.
A fine drizzle began to fall intermittently. She hoped it would not rain hard, though after all, what difference did it make whether it did or not? She would be wet through anyway by the time she got there.
How much longer would that be? She must have come quite a distance now, and the thought cheered her. The ankle was beginning to give an occasional twinge and growing a little weak; in fact, it was feeling rather numb. Nothing to be alarmed about, she told herself. What else could she expect? It was sure to be hurting before she reached her destination.
Something struck her knee and she found that it was one of the doughnuts. She went on, munching the food she had brought along. The doughnuts were very dry. The cheese was hard, too; but it was old cheese that nipped the tongue, the kind she liked.
Time dragged. The girl plodded on painfully. There was no use in trying any longer to deceive herself into the belief that the injured ankle was holding out; it was not! She was hobbling now, as she had done the other night; but there was no strong arm to lean on now.
She would get there all right. That station could not be so very much farther on and she simply had to succeed. It was not that the "story" would be a feather in her own cap, nor yet was it the success of her paper which was at stake; not even the restoration of her father to his place in the financial world—not even that was the main result that hung in the balance. But the prevention of a great wrong, the meting out of rogues' deserts, the saving from suffering of the "every-day" people, thousands of them, to whom life meant little more than a grind for bread—these were the things that mattered; for chiefly upon these poor people whose all was entrusted to the keeping of the Interprovincial Loan and Savings would fall the disaster of the company's failure if it were forced to close its doors because of a swindle of trust funds.
Faces began to float about in the darkness—faces of careworn clerks; of factory workers, lined and lean; child faces with great gaunt eyes; old men, old women—she MUST not fail!
The fitful drizzle settled down steadily, blotting them out. The girl dropped the stones she had been carrying and struggled on bravely, fears lessened by discomfort. She was wet through and began to feel chilly, shuddering as she stumbled forward. Perhaps after all it might have been better to wait—but she cried aloud in anger at the thought. This had been the only way and she must do what she had set out to do. Time was everything. She wondered what time it was now. Surely the station could not be much farther away!
Her mind wandered back to this strong, broad shouldered young man who had shared with her all the strange experiences of the last few days. Three days? Four days? Was that all? It seemed as if she had known him for years. And he had had his arm around her the other night! She laughed, forgetful of everything else for the moment, in a funny sense of belated dismay.
He had been very good to her. And he was handsome. Above all, he was manly—a gentleman. She knew that now. Her woman's intuition told her he was a fine, splendid boy, sincere, brave. Now that she had come to know him, she realized that her former suspicions had been based upon a misunderstanding of the situation. He was not to be held responsible for the kind of man his uncle was. How quickly he had taken the right attitude when he found out the truth about the Honorable Milton Waring. He had urged her not to lose a minute, to get away without fail, even when he knew that her success meant a family disgrace which would be very bitter to bear. Oh, but he was a dear!
That kiss, the night of the fog? How angry she had been! Yet who was to blame for it? Hadn't she invited it? Hadn't she dared him to it? Phil would take no dare from anybody! She laughed softly as she thought of it all, her cheeks blush-burning in the dark.
Time passed. She halted suddenly, aware of a huge shadowy something directly opposite, looming out at her unexpectedly. With a cry of delight she recognized it as a water-tank; she could make out the spout overhanging the track, a stick of pallor in the darkness.
And the station? Eagerly she ran forward—then stopped again, perplexed. There ought to be lights of some sort; but where were they? A day station, maybe, with the operator asleep not far away. She would have to waken him. She did not think to look for switch-lights, and when she discerned the dark mass where the station stood she ran to it gladly and began pounding on the door.
The echoes resounded hollowly through the little building. They seemed strangely loud—with emptiness! She started for the nearest window and broken glass crunched beneath her feet.
Her sharp cry of consternation fell upon the unresponsive night and was swallowed up in blackness, solitude, dead heavy silence. The windows were full of broken panes!
Frantically she hobbled around to the side of the building, only to find the doors boarded up! The truth laid a cold hand upon her. This was one of those stations she had heard Phil tell about, built during construction of the road, but afterwards closed up as unnecessary in the depths of the wild country. Not even a flag station! Not even used by section men! Deserted, abandoned!
And there was no operator here!—nobody who could come to her assistance!
Cristy sank upon the rotting boards, trembling and sick at heart. Her long walk had been for nothing. She was still miles and miles and miles from the goal, with no possible chance of making the distance with an ankle which was swollen now and becoming very painful.
Wet and chilled through, miserable and dazed, she crouched in a huddle of fear. She was utterly alone, miles from help of any sort. The silence throbbed, it was so deep. She imagined faces again, grinning at her from the blackness—the leering faces of Nickleby and others; her father's, pleading; the working people's, the disappointed face of Philip Kendrick! The hour was late already and all the issues which hung at stake——?
"Oh, what can I do? Whatever can I do?" she sobbed.
But the night held no answer to her despair.
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF
The little sweet-toned French clock that stood on the mantel above the fireplace in the library chimed the half hour after midnight as the Honorable Milton Waring replenished the decanter and pried the cap from a fresh bottle of plain soda.
"Even if all the servants have been dismissed for the night, that is no reason why we can't have another little drink, gentlemen. J. C., old man, say 'when.' Help yourself to another cigar, Blatch."
As a host few could outshine the Honorable Milton in geniality, and there was little room in any man's system for pessimism in company with four glasses of the Honorable Milt's special brand of Kentucky Bourbon. J. Cuthbert Nickleby's manner was one of open enthusiasm. Elation possessed him. His laugh was frequent and boisterous. Any doubts he may have entertained at midnight that the deal was going through had been dispelled within the half hour during which the meeting had been in progress. Brazen as the whole thing was, its very boldness apparently had captured the imagination of Waring and Ferguson. Nickleby felt a huge satisfaction in his own perspicacity; he had not cultivated these two men during the past few months for nothing. He knew them and he was about to convert that knowledge into cash and bid them farewell.
It was a good time to be moving along. Nickleby had made money during the past year. His temporary control of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company had enabled him to manipulate to considerable personal advantage; but he was quite aware of the fact that his methods were liable to be questioned sooner or later, and the next annual meeting of the shareholders was not far away. Besides, the unexpected arrival of Harrington Rives on the scene and his very evident intention of getting on his feet by hanging on to Mr. Nickleby's coat-tails compelled a change of plans and the seeking of pastures new. Friend Rives knew too much and was himself too well known to be a safe companion in their present location. Rives and he could work together to mutual advantage, beyond doubt; but it would have to be in some new territory where the limelight had never played upon either of them in the past.
Accordingly when Nickleby discovered that Rives had some valuable mining concessions in Mexico, it had seemed very desirable for them to become partners and try their fortunes in a country where wealth awaited a pair of up-to-date filibusters like them and where political disturbances held forth untold opportunities for their peculiar abilities. To carry out their plans they needed all the capital they could scrape together. Hence the present proposal to unload all the Nickleby interests as quickly as possible for as much ready cash as might be.
The logical victim was the Honorable Milton Waring. Already Nickleby felt that his cultivation of the honorable gentleman had proceeded far enough to justify some boldness. He had succeeded in getting the Honorable Milt pretty well entangled in speculative investments and under his thumb by way of certain personal loans, protected by personal notes. In addition, there was the little flyer in real-estate which the Honorable Milton and his satellite, Blatchford Ferguson, had put through with Nickleby's assistance. That little transaction would cost the honorable gentleman his portfolio with the Government if it became known. So that, taking everything into consideration, Mr. Nickleby felt quite confident that he could persuade the Honorable Milton Waring and Blatchford Ferguson to fall in with the somewhat ambitious plans which President Nickleby had conceived for disposing of his stock in the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company at a satisfactory figure.
These plans amounted practically to theft; but this was something which Nickleby would not admit, even to himself. He preferred to call it "high finance," "clever dealing," "sharp practice" perhaps. But he had no intention of overstepping the law. If, after he was safely away, trouble developed as a result of the situation which he left behind him, that would be the least of his worries. The "mismanagement" of his successors in the control of the loan company would be responsible, not J. Cuthbert Nickleby.
The old Abercrombie farm, outside the city limits, had been a happy discovery. The property really was a valuable one and before many years went by it was destined to rise in value rapidly as the city grew. The place had dropped into neglect of late and the old lady who had fallen heir to the estate was a non-resident. Rives had discovered that this spinster, Miss Patience Hollinsworth, was in her dotage and for a man of Rives' ability the rest had been easy. He had secured an option on the farm at a ridiculous price. Nickleby thereupon had had it subdivided into blocks and streets and building lots, and the beautiful new residential suburb of "River Glen" had appeared in blue print.
At the moment these very blueprints, mounted on beaver-board, were propped in convenient position about the library. On the Honorable Milton's desk reposed sundry legal documents pertaining to the transfer of the Abercrombie property and certain other papers awaiting signature.
"I've seen Fawkner, of Suburban Trolleys Ltd., and it will be a simple matter for them to extend their line as soon as you're ready to put 'River Glen' on the market," remarked Nickleby. "Properly advertised, gentlemen, that subdivision will net a clean half million. I'm getting quite excited about it myself and I only wish I was going to be on hand to handle it personally."
"I'm sure you do," commented Ferguson. "With things moving as they are at present, it ought to go, Milt."
"It looks good to me," was the Honorable Milton Waring's ready response.
"The proposition is certainly an exceptional one," went on Nickleby.
"Very exceptional," grinned Ferguson, running his hand up along the bald streak on top of his head. "So much so, J. C., that you've got to convince us that this 'control' of the Interprovincial you are to hand over to us is bona fide beyond question. We'd be in a fine mess if we lost out at the annual meeting, wouldn't we?"
"Yes, that is important, J. C.," nodded Waring. "You might just go into that end of it a little more fully. Why not begin at the beginning and tell us exactly how you got yourself elected President and how you propose to cover up?"
And with an easy laugh, Mr. Nickleby did so. Because when one is talking to "friends" whom one has under thumb and who are about to shoulder heavy responsibilities one can afford to talk freely; because, also, whisky loosens the tongue and enables one to vizualize a flock of poultry out of a basket of eggs! Then, too, there is inspiration in nods of approval and expressions of admiration, and both Honorable Milton Waring and Mr. Blatchford Ferguson were prodigal of these as the recital progressed.
Certainly it was an amazing confession. With considerable gusto did J. Cuthbert Nickleby explain the various moves by which he had dethroned the Lawson interests and usurped control of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company. The quiet gathering together of proxies, the appointment of dummy directors, the "purchase" of others, the "personal loans" which silenced others still, the failure of "Old Nat" to produce his authority for voting the Bradford block of stock—all of these factors Mr. Nickleby set forth with a lucidity and frankness which aimed to convince his two auditors that when they and their associates assumed "control" it would be absolute, with no possibility of failure in swinging the annual meeting to suit themselves.
"By heaven, Nickleby, you're a wizard!" cried Ferguson at last, unable longer to restrain his enthusiasm. "You've got the situation tied up in a pretty knot and no mistake. Hasn't he, Milt? Take it from me, J. C., if you'd been cruising the high seas in the days of Captain Kidd, you'd have given him a run for his money! Some buccaneer, believe me!" and he went off into a peal of laughter born of sheer admiration.
"Quit your kidding, Blatch," grinned Mr. Nickleby modestly as he reached for the decanter, quite unconscious of the pun. "But I hope you're now convinced that this proposition is feasible and quite in order."
"I don't know about that," objected the Honorable Milton slowly. "It's clear enough that you've got things in your own hands just now, J. C., and can shove through this deal O.K. But your whole control rests upon the fact that the Bradford stock is side-tracked. Supposing Nat Lawson locates that missing power-of-attorney? What then?"
"I give you my word that he can't do it," chuckled Nickleby.
"That's all very well. But supposing he does? How do you know he can't?"
"Because I do." Nickleby set down his glass triumphantly. "I don't mind letting you into a little secret, gentlemen. That power-of-attorney has been destroyed."
"Are you sure?" gasped Ferguson.
"I ought to be. I burned it myself!"
"No! You're stuffing us, J. C. You may be clever; but you're not as clever as that! Say, will you swear to that?"
"Here's a bible, Blatch. Make him swear to it and the deal's on." The Honorable Milton handed a small bible across the desk as he spoke. "If that's the situation, I guess it's safe to go ahead."
"You son-of-a-gun!" cried Ferguson, when Nickleby had duly taken his oath. "I don't mind admitting that when I first heard your proposition I thought it was impossible to get away with it. You buy a farm, turn it into a subdivision, hand it over to us, then we hand it back to you as collateral for a loan of $250,000, with which we purchase from you the subdivision and all your stock in the company, which gives us control of the transaction—Phew! give me air!"
"You understand, Nickleby, that we've got to be mighty careful how this thing is handled," said Waring gravely. "It's taking chances."
"'Nothing venture, nothing win,'" quoted Nickleby. "But I'll cover it up. Leave that to me."
"Lawson has a lot of friends, remember. There's Ben Wade, for instance——"
"You needn't worry about him, Milt. He hasn't been able to get together more than thirty per cent. of the votes."
"And there's Timothy Drexel—He's a director, isn't he?"
"That old fool! Yes, he's a director; but he's putty! Hand him some taffy and you can pat him into any shape you like. You should have heard his speech when he nominated me for president last year," and Nickleby laughed heartily at the recollection.
The Honorable Milton Waring got up and began to pace the room. It was evident that there were certain aspects of the deal which disturbed him.
"If my connection with this thing ever got out, Blatch," he said, pausing in front of the lawyer, "it would mean—the finish!"
"Oh, hang the political end of it, Milt!" exclaimed Ferguson impatiently. "Between us, J. C. and I will see that you are protected legally. And anyway, what's the use of being in politics if you don't get a share of the loaves and fishes while you've got the chance? All politicians are supposed by the public to be feathering their own nests, and you might as well feather yours when you've got to come under the accusation anyway. It's all in the game. If you've got the sponduliks you can do anything these days. It's every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost!"
"There's a lot of truth in what you say, Blatch. Well, let's get down to business and get it over with," sighed the Honorable Milton Waring.
Abruptly he sat down at his desk and reached for the papers.
NIP AND TUCK
Engine No. 810 was running free through the night with a big string of box-cars and gondolas tossing along behind her, dim shadows in the dark. Her powerful electric headlight threw a beam, long and bright, that burrowed into the black void far in front. But for this and the few red-glowing chinks in her firebox and the thunder of the wheels, the freight might have been some phantom reptile rushing through the land with two red eyes in its tail.
Evans, the fireman, kicked impatiently at the slash-bar and hooked the fire. The lurid glare from the white fires that curled and writhed under the crown-sheet flung wide upon flying right-of-way and the woods on either side, and played with the swirling ribbon of steam that was hissing back from the dome. Bathed in the blinding light, the fireman stood for a space, swinging his scoop with pendulum precision from fire-box to coal-tank and back again; then the whole scene went out suddenly.
Engineer Macdonald, leaning out over his armrest, chafed at the delay as he choked her head for the Spruce Valley grade. The line was clear as far as Indian Creek; but up there somewhere they would have to take the siding for the first section of the Limited, eastbound.
With a glance at the indicator and the guages, the fireman jerked a blackened thumb over his shoulder towards the coal-tank. Macdonald shook his head.
"We'll fill her at Number Seven," he shouted.
They were bearing down upon the switch lights opposite Thorlakson. But Macdonald was in a hurry and too anxious to take advantage of the grade to stop for water there. The few scattered lights flicked by and they were off again into the blackness ahead.
On the time-card No. 7 was a "blind" water tank farther on up the line, the loneliest tank on the division. The surrounding country was wild and uninhabited save for the isolated groups of loyal track-men who stuck to their lonely but important posts during the blizzard months with the same persistence that carried them through the fly season. Engine 810 would take water there.
Fifteen minutes' run and Macdonald drew in his head, shut off steam, opened the sander, threw the brakeshoes against the drivers and brought everything to a shuddering standstill with the pilot slipping just past the tank, while his fireman was scrambling back amongst the coal to haul down the overhanging spout. And all of this was quite within the prosaics of the night's work.
What immediately followed was not. There was nothing in the locality to prepare them for it, while the hour was late and the night damp and disagreeable—nothing to account for the flying figure of a girl dashing wildly up the headlight's path, straight for the engine, arms waving frantic signals.
The engineer's wondering profanity scarcely had begun to flow freely before she was on top of them. Panting, wild-eyed, hair in riotous disorder, this beautiful young woman climbed up into the cab with the agility of an overpowering excitement, pouring out upon the astonished enginemen a wonderful stream of incoherent "explanations."
Evans, who never before had seen a girl on the verge of hysteria, swore deep and long under his breath, staring as if in a trance. He came to himself only when the water overflowed the manhole, and he let go of the spout with a carelessness that earned him a wetting as it lifted, dripping, back into place.
No sooner had the girl set foot on the deck than she clambered into the head brakeman's seat, nestling in alongside the boiler-head as far forward as she could get, her feet on the fireman's lunch-pail, her knees drawn up in clasped fingers and her eyes looking straight ahead out of the narrow cab window. That it might be against the rules of the road for strangers to ride on an engine apparently had not occurred to her, for she seemed to take it for granted that she was entirely welcome as long as she did not get in their way.
The fireman stared across at Macdonald and surreptitiously tapped his forehead; the engineer stared back at Evans and winked knowingly. The whole thing had taken but a few moments. A light was swinging out from the top of the cars at the rear and Macdonald opened the throttle. They were moving ahead before either of the two men could think of anything but several variations of the word "damn."
In this manner did Miss Cristy Lawson come to take her first ride on an engine. The night had been crowded with nerve-wracking excitement; but in the elation which she experienced over this unexpected way out of her difficulty, she felt renewed strength and confidence that surely would see her through. Half an hour ago she had been lost in a welter of despair; but she was all right now. Everything was all right now. The story would get through yet; nothing could stop it now. And, protected by the roar of the wheels, she cried a little in relief.
Just a moment of this, however. She was not ordinarily the crying kind. The furnace glare presently filled the whole cab as the fireman shovelled in more coal, and the novelty of her surroundings pressed upon her to the temporary exclusion of everything else.
Wasn't the din something awful? She had no idea that a locomotive was such a noisy place. She soon found herself getting more used to it and watched the engineer with wonder and interest. Her idea of an engineer, she found, had been formed by the illustrations in the magazines; she had pictured him in her mind as a man who sat with hand constantly on the throttle or the levers or whatever it was, bent far forward, peering keenly and steadily from beneath the visor of his greasy cap with eyes riveted unswervingly on every yard of track ahead. She was surprised, therefore, to find that this engineer seemed almost careless of attitude, leaning back in his cushioned seat, body jogging loosely to the motions of the great machine. It was only occasionally that he seemed to arouse enough interest to lean out of the window, and scarcely ever did he touch the levers in front of him. Once he actually got down from his seat and came over to the fireman's side to shout something in that grimy individual's ear, and all the while they were thundering along without any lessening of speed. What if something should appear suddenly on the track in front of them? Her heart leaped at the thought. She was sure he could not get back in time to stop, and it was all very surprising to her.
Curiously her eyes roved over all the levers and queer instruments. Certainly an engineer must have to carry a terrible lot in his head to know how to manage them. There was a little knob, for instance; if she were to give it a pull, something would happen somewhere, an explosion perhaps,—dear knows what! She watched the hand of the indicator on the boilerhead fluttering around the figure 190. She studied the liquid in the glass tubes. A little apparatus, too, that looked like a small whistle. Was it a whistle and when did they blow it? Steam was bubbling out of a joint in a pipe right at her side; the hot water dribbled on her dress once when she leaned too far over and she caught the fireman grinning at her.
She laughed light-heartedly, taking a child-like joy out of this new and thrilling experience. She could not help marvelling at the unconcern with which these men attended to their work; they were perfectly at home on this rolling engine.
Didn't it rock and jerk about, though? It was enough to tear out the rails almost, it seemed to her, and her pulses quickened at the thought that if anything should break! But it did not seem to, somehow.
The fireman's gloved hand seized the chain on the feed-door again and jerked it open. She watched him toiling with his scoop, the white glare beating upon the rugged lines of his face till it was a wonder he could stand that fierce heat. There was a funny black smudge running across his nose, and when he bent his back she saw that a buckle was missing from his overalls and he had substituted a piece of coarse twine. Was he married? If he was, why didn't his wife look after those buckles? He worked hard enough to deserve to have little things like that looked after for him. Why, she'd heard they even shovelled as much as a whole ton of coal on a single trip!
The lurch of the engine as they swung around a curve drew her attention to the track which was sweeping in upon them with dizzy continuity. Out there, ahead of the big black body of the locomotive, the funneled path of the headlight streamed away into the unknown. Far up the track the white mile-boards on the poles caught it, ran toward them, flashed at them and skipped out of sight behind. Tall weeds nodded in it as they swept past. It poured out along the wet rails, which glistened in the bright bath and let go only when the beam plunged away at a curve and went exploring in the woods or rioted across a valley into panorama on the other side.
Once a little rabbit sat in the middle of the track, staring the great light in the eye with a fascination that threatened its life. The tiny creature seemed to be paralyzed by the glare and they almost ran it down before it tore away in sudden fright and its cotton-white tuft vanished in the long grass.
But as the novelty of all this wore off, her mind reverted to the thing that she was trying to do. The speeding engine, the flying track, became merely the accessories which were carrying her nearer and nearer her goal—a telegraph operator.
The fireman's watch hung on a hook alongside and the hands showed twenty-five minutes past midnight. It was standard time both here and in Toronto; so that would be the time at the Recorder office also—12.25 a.m. They would be well into the rush of the night's work by now. The boys would be in from assignments and pounding out "copy" in the city room. The wires would be warming up and the "flimsy" arriving at the telegraph editor's desk in bunches, and old man Jeffreys would be reaching in the left bottom drawer of his scarred old desk for his little package of bread and cheese with an apple or a banana to top it off; he always ate that twenty-five minutes after midnight, just before the linotype men and the rest of the composing-room staff, who ate at the all-night restaurant around the corner, straggled back to their work.
Cristy began to go over the things she must do and to arrange them in the order she must do them. The very first thing would be the messages to McAllister and Brennan; there must be no delay in getting the police into action. If they could surprise their quarry over at Waring's house on the Island—catch them in the middle of it—it would provide a dramatic climax to the sensational story. She could trust her editor not to overlook any such opportunity and her eyes sparkled as she pictured the uproar that would follow those messages in the Recorder office. The old place would be buzzing and the whole staff on the jump like a bunch of excited kids!
Impatiently she peered out ahead, looked for lights down the track, glanced continually at the hands of the watch. She ran hastily over the strong features of the sensation, marshalling her facts, getting the general scheme of the story into her head in proper newspaper style and planning a strong "lead."
She became so engrossed in this that not until a vibrant shudder passed through the engine did she notice. The engineer was leaning out the window on his side of the cab, one hand on a lever. She threw a quick glance out the narrow window in front of her and saw that they were bowling down a straight stretch of track and that far ahead in the darkness were little specks of light.
A station! It must be the station at last!
Anxiously she watched the far-away dots arrange themselves slowly into switch lights beside the track. The larger lights on the right—those would be station windows. Another light, a red one—the order board was out against them and the train would have to stop!
She cried out in her excitement and satisfaction. She felt like opening the narrow window, rushing out along the running-board to the front of the engine and cheering!
They were beginning to slow up now. A man came out and stood on the platform, some papers in his hand. She could see him quite plainly in his shirtsleeves in the glare of the powerful headlight. That must be the night operator—the Mecca of all her hopes.
The hands of the fireman's watch indicated 12.30.
They rolled in beside the platform and the long string of freight cars bumped, groaned, squeaked and stopped. A lantern came bobbing along the tops of the cars from the rear. The conductor dropped off the caboose and jogged forward beside his train.
Macdonald drew in his head and looked across the cab. But the seat was empty. The girl had slipped away already and presently he caught sight of her, disappearing into the station.
Brennan, Night Editor of the Recorder, scribbled a two-column head, folded it in with a sheet of "flimsy," dropped it into the dumb-waiter box and yanked the string that shot it aloft to the composing room. He reached for his long scissors, snipped off a fresh piece of the typewritten C.A.P. report, fastened it with a daub of paste to a sheet of copy paper and marked it for a single-column "box," Page 1. The whistle blew in the speaking-tube at his elbow and he answered the foreman's question while scribbling his initials to the slip which a newly arrived messenger boy from one of the telegraph companies was holding flat for him.
"'Phone, Bren," called Chic White, Sporting Editor.
Brennan took down the receiver as a reporter laid a wad of new "copy" on the desk and hurried out again. Then Brennan opened a drawer in his desk and took another bite out of a ham sandwich before tearing the envelopes from the newly arrived telegrams.
Up until now things had been very quiet all evening, so quiet that the lay-out of a decent front page was a problem. The Chief had gone home early to-night and had paused on his way out to ask Brennan how the news was breaking and instruct him to "boil everything down." If there was anything that McAllister detested it was a thirty-six point head on a twelve-point item.
"Kerr! Jackson! Brock!"
Every typewriter in the city room stopped clacking and the three reporters jumped. They crowded together in the doorway as Brennan snapped his instructions.
"Get the Chief on the 'phone and hold him for me, Jackson. Here, Brock, sit in at the desk and keep everything down to a couple of sticks. Call a taxi, Kerr."
He glanced at his watch as he made for the stairs. It was ten minutes to 1 a.m. Up in the composing-room he went over the forms with the foreman, asking questions, "killing" perfectly good "stories" with rapid decision, clearing space for the biggest "scoop" which the Recorder had achieved in many months.
"Chief's not home and they don't know where he is," came Jackson's anxious voice through the speaking tube.
"Find him! Find him!" cried Brennan impatiently. "Try the National Club. Use your head, Jackson!"
But when Brennan hurried downstairs a few minutes later McAllister had not been located yet.
"He went out somewhere with Wade, of the C.L.S., and left no word at the house as to when he'd be back," explained Jackson.
"Call up Wade, then."
"I did, but he's out too, and nobody seems to know where."
"Get me Nat Lawson on the 'phone. Say, Chic, where's Pardeau? What? Not back from that assignment? Then see if you can find him for me. The rest of you chop your stuff. Cristy Lawson owns the front page!"
Briefly he answered their eager questions, then turned to listen to Jackson, talking to the Lawson residence. Apparently Nathaniel Lawson was not at home either.
Brennan fiddled with the stem of his watch for a moment. He was in a quandary. He had been taken into McAllister's confidence, of course, regarding this graft exposure story which had been nursed along so carefully. The cuts to illustrate it were locked up in McAllister's desk, he knew. It was unlike the Chief to leave no word of his whereabouts. That it should happen on this of all nights! No doubt they'd locate him after a bit; but in the meantime—? It was nearly one o'clock and Cristy Lawson's wire brooked no delay.
There was only one thing to do—go ahead on his own initiative. Brennan went into McAllister's private office and closed the door while he talked to the Chief of Police on the private line. He came out hurriedly, called Kerr, and went down in the elevator to the waiting taxi. Next to Pardeau, Kerr was the fastest shorthand man on the staff.
They stopped at the Central Police Station to pick up a couple of plainclothes men who were waiting for them and the taxi sped through the almost deserted streets at breakneck pace, heading for the waterfront.
A few minutes later the harbor police launch was streaking across the quiet waters of the bay. It threw a wake that curled and widened, and in it danced the broken reflections of the harbor lights.
The Honorable Milton Waring ushered them into the library with a smile. He was quite calm as he cleared away the blueprints and invited them to find seats.
"You are just in time, gentlemen, to witness the end of the comedy," and he pressed a button beneath the edge of his desk as he spoke. "Pass around the cigars, Blatch, like a good fellow— Well, upon my word!"
"Arrest that man!" cried Ferguson, springing after J. Cuthbert Nickleby, who had made a dash towards the French doors which opened on the verandah.
"It's all right, sir. I've got him," assured one of the detectives who was waiting without for some such move. As he came through the doorway the click of the handcuffs was quite audible to the startled group within the room.
"What's the meaning of this, Waring?" shouted Nickleby, his face distorted with rage. "Are you trying to frame something on me? Take off these bracelets, damn you!"
"I'd advise you to sit down, Nickleby, and keep quiet. You are under arrest and you'll know all about it in a few minutes. Ah, good evening, gentlemen, I'm afraid there aren't chairs enough to go around; but make yourselves at home please."
From the hallway they filed into the library—McAllister, of the Recorder; President Wade, of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway; Nathaniel Lawson, ex-president of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company; Timothy Drexel and another director of the same concern. Detective Sainsbury from Headquarters and Parsons, official court stenographer, brought up the rear with Pardeau, star reporter for the Recorder. Their faces were serious and their entry partook of the solemnity of a jury bringing a verdict into court.
A brief whispered colloquy with his editor quickly smoothed the perplexity from Brennan's face. McAllister had picked up Pardeau on the street and had sent a belated message to the office. It was a big "story" that was breaking and he ordered Brennan and Pardeau back to their desks with instructions to hold the galleys till he arrived shortly. Kerr could handle the present end of it. He waved his hand impatiently and focussed his undivided attention upon what was transpiring.
A silence had fallen upon the crowded room and as the Honorable Milton Waring allowed his gaze to rove upon their tense, expectant faces he smiled reassuringly. He began with an explanation of the circumstances leading up to the present situation. It was not merely to adjust Interprovincial Loan Company affairs by the exposure of its official head that he had brought them together. His integrity as a public servant had been questioned and there were certain features that in the interests of clean government required official enquiry. He was prepared to move for the appointment of a royal commission to investigate and report upon conditions vitally affecting financial institutions, election laws and other matters. It was something with which he had concerned himself seriously for several years, and it was partly to prove his theories in this connection that with the assistance of Mr. Blatchford Ferguson he had taken advantage of the situation which had developed in the affairs of the Interprovincial. As a result of their investigations they stood prepared to prove gross mismanagement, falsification of the returns required by the Federal authorities, misuse of trust funds for private ends, attempted corruption of government officials, et cetera.
The Honorable Milton was frank in his admission that during the recent orgy of speculation into which the discovery of new mineral wealth had led the public, he had become personally involved. He was only human and the general excitement had induced him to make several disastrous investments which had left his personal affairs in a precarious tangle for a time. But it was an ill wind that blew nobody good. The financial crisis through which he had passed had brought him in touch with J. C. Nickleby, and it was not long before his eyes had been opened to the unscrupulous methods that were being followed by the president of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company. He had called in his learned friend, Mr. Ferguson, and as a result of their consultations it had been decided to make a few experiments in high finance with the object of uncovering the whole system.
To this end they deliberately had cultivated Nickleby's confidence. It was apparent from the first that the man was utterly devoid of common honesty. It was his idea that government graft was an established method of revenue and he seemed to be obsessed with the belief that no Minister of the Crown would allow his oath of office to interfere with the acquisition of personal wealth. As their relations had ripened he had grown bolder and had organized a construction company with the object of using his "connection" to swing certain tenders for public works into the graft column. Nickleby had felt so sure of himself by this time that he even had proposed a contribution of $50,000 to the party campaign funds in return for "privileges." He had been told quite plainly that he would make such a contribution at his own risk. Nevertheless he had gone ahead with it on his own initiative. The money had mysteriously disappeared between the office of the construction company and its destination; it had never reached the party exchequer.
Which brought the Honorable Milton Waring to the point of paying high compliment to the editor of the Recorder. He bowed to McAllister. He had never before quite realized, he said, what a debt all lovers of clean government owed to the press. No man with designs upon the public treasury could go very far without some journalistic watch-dog being on his trail, and it was so in the present instance.
The Alderson Construction Company had aroused the suspicions of Mr. McAllister shortly after it became active. In some way he had learned of the proposed campaign fund contribution and, as it turned out, it was due to the zeal of a Recorder reporter that Nickleby's contribution had been intercepted and photographed. It had then fallen into the hands of Mr. Benjamin Wade by accident and Mr. Wade had deposited the $50,000 in trust, pending proof of ownership.
A few days ago Mr. Wade had come to him with these facts and also to warn him that the Recorder was preparing to accuse him of being implicated with Nickleby and Blatchford Ferguson in a certain doubtful real-estate transaction. Not until then had he realized the risk which Mr. Ferguson and he had assumed in attempting to follow their own line of investigation in secret. The possibility that the hunter might in turn be hunted—and quite legitimately hunted on the face of it—had not occurred to them. They had taken Mr. McAllister into their confidence as soon as they realized the extent of his knowledge, and only his patience and co-operation had enabled them to carry their investigations to fruition.
The real-estate transaction in question had been planned by Mr. Ferguson for the purpose of quieting suspicion in the mind of Nickleby. It was a case of fighting the devil with fire; for had Nickleby not believed that he was dealing with men who were as greedy as himself they would never have succeeded in uncovering the evidence they were after.
As part of their plan, therefore, they had gone to Nickleby with the proposal that the three of them—Nickleby, Ferguson and himself—form a little syndicate on the quiet to buy up a tract of land on which the Government had its eye as a prospective location for the new Deaf & Dumb Institute. The land had a market value of $100,000 and this sum the Government was quite ready to pay. Nickleby had advanced the loan to negotiate the deal and Ferguson had bought up the land in small lots at sacrifice prices from individual owners for a total of $50,000. The Honorable Milton had told Nickleby that he was acting for the Government; but the cheque with which he had "purchased" the land from the syndicate of three had been his personal cheque. The amount was $200,000. The syndicate's profit, therefore, was $150,000 and this sum they had divided in three, $50,000 each. But Nickleby did not know—nor McAllister, either—that the whole thing had been juggled for a purpose, with the sanction of the Attorney General, and that the "profits" which had gone to Mr. Ferguson and himself had been thrown back into the deal when the site had been turned over to the Government, which therefore obtained the land at its legitimate market value, $100,000.
No doubt the whole thing had been indiscreet; but by this time both Ferguson and himself had got so interested in the little game they were playing with the salvation of the loan company as the stakes that they had overlooked the surface appearances. The discovery that every move they had made had been watched by the lynx-eyed McAllister had instilled in them a profound respect.
To bring things to a head and to justify their actions Ferguson and he had undertaken to prove their case against Nickleby by exposing him and his methods to the gentlemen who had last entered the room. These gentlemen had been placed where they could listen to the evidence for themselves and, to make doubly sure, a dictaphone had been installed and an official court stenographer had taken down the whole thing. It was almost incredible that a criminal of this man's type had been able to engineer himself into a place of trust in an institution of such influence as the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company, to play fast and loose with its credit as he had done, and to bamboozle its directorate. The fact that he had been made to convict himself must plead excuse for the subterfuge in which they had been forced to indulge. It had been a most disagreeable experience and the Honorable Milton Waring was glad that it was over.
"I have only this to say, further, gentlemen," he concluded. "It is no sinecure to hold public office and administer a public trust and I am moved to protest most earnestly against the public tendency to discredit politics and the men who are devoting their energies—frequently at great personal inconvenience and loss—to the government of the country. There are those who cannot seem to admit that it is possible for a man to enter the political arena and remain as honest and sincere in public life as he has been as a private citizen. Such a condition of the public mind is to be deplored, even as the past events upon which the condition is based are to be deplored. If the people look upon government as a joke, the joke is on them; for their government is what they make of it or permit it to be.
"It is my belief that below all government, like the sure-rock foundation of a worth-while edifice, must lie the spirit of fair dealing and a law-abiding citizenship. Let the people determine that corruption in politics will spell political ruin instead of personal aggrandizement and see how swiftly every political yacht will trim its sails. The cry that politics are so rotten that the men who count most in their communities will have nothing to do with active participation in government will then cease and we will have genuine public service.
"I did not intend to make a political speech; but many times of late I have felt like resigning. As long as party success and corporation support dictate our political standards, so long will we have men like Nickleby there attempting corruption, so long will political leadership be forced to dance for its balance upon shifting platforms.
"I thank you, gentlemen, for your attention. The facts I have given you can be substantiated readily by Mr. Ferguson, Mr. Wade and Mr. McAllister; but no doubt the demonstration of the attempt to misuse the loan company's funds to the extent of a quarter of a million dollars—the interview that has taken place in this room tonight—is sufficiently conclusive in itself."
"Conclusive?" piped old Timothy Drexel, unable longer to contain himself. He elbowed his way towards the prisoner and shook a bony finger in front of his nose. "You miserable scoundrel!" he exploded. "Old fool, eh? Putty, eh? You hand me taffy and pat me into any shape you like, eh? You confounded thief! You—you—!"
"Aw, you shut up!" snarled Nickleby, who had sat through it all with that cynical sneer of his. He knew when he was beaten. With no further word he followed the detectives from the room.
They crowded about the Honorable Milton Waring and Blatchford Ferguson with congratulations. Nathaniel Lawson could not say much; but his grip was tight when he shook hands and his gratitude was evident. McAllister was not given to expressions of sentiment, but as he bade adieu there was an unaccustomed enthusiasm in his keen eyes. His editorial in the morning paper would be strong, very strong; he would call it "The Mantle of Disraeli," or something like that.
Ben Wade stood to one side, watching them take their leave, and his tanned face was alight with satisfaction. There would be a tremendous sensation when the Recorder came out. It would be a bully spread—not one of graft charges, as originally planned by Mac, but even a better story of the fight which an honest politician had been forced to put up in order to remain honest, of the Honorable Milt's investigations and his announcement regarding a royal commission to probe conditions, the escape of the Interprovincial from the criminal activities of its president, the dramatic arrest of Nickleby, the work of Cristy Lawson. Trust Mac not to miss any of it.
And Ben Wade, whose faith in the Honorable Milton Waring had remained unshaken when things looked blackest, smiled as he watched. His advice to McAllister, his faith in Waring, had been vindicated; but he was not thinking of this. He was thinking of another's steadfast faith that had been sorely tried. It would be a happy morrow for Dolly Waring.
"So long, Milt," he said heartily. "We're proud of you, old man."
Because the world is such a very big place and there are so many people busy with so many different things, life goes on as usual with little time for more than a brief pause of wonder at the experiences of others. The metal which casts the page of to-day's events goes back into the melting-pot of the stereotyper to appear to-morrow with new announcements.
During the weeks that followed the Recorder's sensation routine resumed its sway and only among those directly concerned did memory linger. There was a very lively meeting of irate shareholders in the offices of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company and a unanimous demand for the return of Nathaniel Lawson to the government of its affairs. Upon Old Nat's recommendation the new secretary appointed was a reliable and loyal young man by the name of James Stiles.
Nickleby's attempt to secure bail was unsuccessful, and while awaiting trial upon several charges he had plenty of time to philosophize. Thanks to the work of Bob Cranston, Chief of the Special Service Department of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway, Nickleby's past record stood revealed and there was talk of extradition.
After a conference between Wade and the Honorable Milton Waring it was decided to prefer no charges against Harrington Rives, who pleaded to be allowed to carry out his plan of going to Mexico to look after his interests there. He departed for the south, where he could bestride a burro and lose himself among the Mexican hills.
Ben Wade had nodded his approval. Rives had learned his lesson and was not fool enough to come back. Knowing the calibre of the man, he had regarded Rives as a dangerous breeder of mischief and when Mrs. Waring had confided her fears that the Honorable Milton was in difficulties, Wade had been afraid that Rives would seek some revenge on his old-time enemy through Aunt Dolly. That he was preparing for something of the kind in sending Weiler to Sparrow Lake was apparent. Placing McCorquodale at the summer resort had seemed a Quixotic thing to do; but Benjamin Wade was not given to over-looking bets. He was glad to see the last of Rives.
And McCorquodale? The "Iron Man" had scored official notice when he brought the notorious "Red" McIvor to trial. He had had several flattering offers as a result of it; but all of these he had refused at the request of President Wade. Bob Cranston had decided to accept a place with another railroad, and McCorquodale took over his duties as Chief of the Special Service Department for the C. L. S.
Another promotion that took place about the same time affected a "gude smart mans," named Svenson, who became foreman of an important section of the line, with a shanty of his own and six-foot Olga Olafson as his brand new bride. The couple went on a wonderful honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls, all expenses paid by President Wade no less, and when they got back to their new home they found certain bulky packages and boxes piled on the big deal table that Svenson had made. Cristy Lawson's gift was a complete set of beautiful dishes and a bolt or two of dress goods and curtain material; there was a brand new, latest model repeating rifle from Phil and a gold watch, monogramed; McCorquodale sent a case of assorted tobaccos and a fine hunting-knife in a leather sheath, while from Jimmy Stiles came a big box of groceries. When everything lay open before them Mr. and Mrs. Svenson stared at the array, speechless.
"Yumpin' Yudas!" yelled the big fellow at last. He grabbed his six-foot smiling wife and kissed her with a loud smack.
The selection of these gifts had been the outcome of many consultations between Mr. Philip Kendrick and Miss Cristy Lawson. It was surprising how much serious thought was necessary in order to decide on the weight and pattern of a set of dishes or the color scheme of window drapes. Almost every evening in the week Kendrick had found it necessary to go up to the Lawson home to discuss something or other and they had gone shopping together for two whole afternoons—excursions which had extended to motor spins into the country and dinners down town and so on. And when the Svenson wedding presents no longer furnished excuses, for the very good reason that they had been shipped to their destination, there was always something else that needed consultation, such as President Wade's flattering offer to Phil to join the executive of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway or the very exceptional investment opportunity that presented itself in connection with a certain choice suburban villa with a wonderful lake frontage.
It was surprising, too, the way the gasoline consumption of the Waring motor launch increased. The Honorable Milton even took occasion to mention the matter to Aunt Dolly in Phil's presence at dinner one night; he thought there must be something wrong with the engine, but there was a twinkle in his eye that betrayed him.
"Here's a clipping that I got to-day from Billy Thorpe," said Phil, quite irrelevantly. "It's from the North Bay paper and concerns our friend, Hughey Podmore."
He read it aloud. It cited the particulars of a strange case which had reached the hospital at North Bay some weeks ago—a man who had been found wandering in the woods with bits of what appeared to be bank-notes sticking to his skin. His skin had been scratched and bleeding in many places and the man when taken in hand had been delirious. Later, when he had become rational apparently and his condition had improved, he had refused positively to reveal his identity or to make any statement as to the circumstances which had led to his condition; so that he had been discharged as a "mystery." He had expressed an intention to go West, take up a homestead and eventually go in for pure-bred stock. It was presumed, therefore, that he was a young farmer who had been working in some lumber camp and on his way out to civilization had got lost in the woods and had become temporarily deranged by the experience.
Having successfully sidetracked the conversation, Phil excused himself from the table and hurried to his room. Here he dressed with scrupulous care. He unfolded a small cambric handkerchief and a dollar bill to make sure that the little hand-painted pin was quite safe; then he folded the articles together again and placed them in an inside pocket with a care befitting the important part they were about to play.
He now unlocked a drawer in the cheffonier and took out a very small square box, morocco leather, velvet-lined. The stone was a beautiful white one and he stood off a pace or two and admired it. It certainly made that other solitaire she had been wearing on her engagement finger look like thirty cents! And to think that the "engagement" had been merely a detail of her masquerade in Fergey's office! To-night——?
With a sigh of satisfaction he pocketed the little leather box. Then he slipped out the back way, taking a latch-key with him. They were going canoeing to-night and he knew that it would be late, very late, when he returned.