Then he had taken it for granted that Agatha would not find the vein, and had helped her because he thought it better she should convince herself that Strange had been the victim of his imagination. He had honestly thought this when they started, but now recognized that he had unconsciously had another object: he wanted her society and to earn her gratitude.
A light began to dawn on him when he found Strange's tobacco-box, but he had, so to speak, evaded full illumination until it became obvious that they were near the vein. Then the truth could no longer be denied. He was in love with the girl, and had unconsciously loved her from the first. In a sense, this looked ridiculous; but there it was and he must face it. If she had been poor, he would have urged her to marry him, although it might have exposed her to some risk of hardship. But she was rich, and the best he could hope for was a post at a mine like the Clermont.
He had no ground for imagining that Agatha would be willing to marry him; but if she were, it would look as if he meant to share her riches when he offered his help. In fact, it would look as if he meant to take advantage of her ignorance about mining matters and her trust. It would not disturb him if outsiders thought this, but she might come to think so.
Besides, he was not going to be supported by his wife's money. In view of their characters, the situation would be humiliating for both. Agatha might learn to despise him, which would be intolerable.
Then he felt a touch on his shoulder and got up with a start. Agatha stood close by and he thought there was more color in her face than usual, although her eyes were calm.
"Brooding over our good luck?" she said with a smile. "Isn't that a curious attitude?"
"The good luck is yours."
"If you insist on the difference, but I don't know that it's kind! Besides, I wanted to give you half my frontage on the vein."
"That's quite impossible," said Thirlwell firmly.
"Why is it impossible?"
"It would look as if I'd meant to take advantage of your generosity."
"Does it matter how the thing would look?"
"Yes," said Thirlwell, who hesitated. "I want to keep your good opinion—if I have it."
Agatha smiled, but her glance was soft. "I won't flatter you, because I think you ought to know. But why are you moody? I'd expected you to be sympathetic to rejoice with me."
"For your sake, I am glad."
"But not for yours?"
"I haven't quite got used to the situation yet," Thirlwell answered awkwardly. "You see, I never expected to find the ore."
"That was rather obvious," Agatha rejoined with some dryness. "But if you thought we would be disappointed, why did you come?"
Thirlwell was silent. He did not mean to admit that he had thought a sharp disappointment would be good for her and might save her worse pain. It was difficult to state this properly. Then if he owned that he had come for the pleasure of her society, she might misunderstand him and he might say too much. Agatha was half amused by his embarrassment, but was moved all the same, for she understood more than he knew.
"We'll let it go," she resumed. "Still, I don't see why you should be disturbed by my success."
"One often feels sorry when one finishes a big job. It means one has come to the end of things one has got used to and likes."
"But this is rather the beginning than the end."
"No," he said moodily. "We have had a glorious trip, but it's done with. You will go back to the cities; there are only two or three months when a civilized girl can live in the woods. The trail we have broken stops here."
"But what do you mean to do?"
"Help Scott at the Clermont, until he's forced to give up."
"Sit down and light your pipe," said Agatha. "We must talk about this."
He obeyed and picked up his pipe. Although he did not light it, its touch was soothing and he wanted to keep cool. Agatha sat down opposite on a fallen trunk and presently went on: "To begin with, the mine must be worked, not sold, and I need help."
"You can get a good manager for the wages you'll be able to pay."
Agatha's color was higher, but she gave him a steady look. "I want a man I know and trust. There are many ways in which I shall need advice, because I cannot take this fortune without its responsibility. The mine must be worked to the best advantage and the people I employ treated well. I mean to build good houses for them, not rude shacks, make it possible for them to lead happy lives, and see they get the best, not the worst, that our cities can send them when a settlement springs up."
"It's a fine ambition," Thirlwell remarked. "However, it will cost you something, and you'll find some resistance from the people you want to help; but if the ore's as good as we think, you'll be able to carry out your plans."
"Do you think I could trust this work to a stranger? A man hired for wages, who might have no sympathy with my aims?" Agatha asked. "Then, if when I've done all I mean, I'm rich, somebody must help me to use the money well." She turned her head for a moment, and then resumed: "Can't you see that it's daunting to feel I may have to struggle alone with a task I'm hardly fit for—to know I'll make mistakes?"
"There is your brother."
"George would see I made prudent investments, and think I ought to be satisfied with getting ten per cent." She gave Thirlwell a look that made his heart beat. "I need help George cannot give, and know nobody but you."
She stopped, for she could go no farther. It was for him to meet her now, if he wanted, but for a moment or two he was silent and knitted his brows. His brown face was resolute, but something in his eyes indicated that resolution cost him much. Then he said, "You offer me the post of manager?"
She turned her head, for it was difficult to preserve her calm. He was dull in some respects, but it was scarcely possible that he was as dull as he now pretended. Looking up with a forced smile, she said: "Yes, of course. I want a manager, and if you would sooner be businesslike—"
"I'm afraid I'm very unbusinesslike," he replied with some grimness. "However, if Scott is willing, I'll help you to develop the mine and get your patent; but I think it would be prudent to let him join us. You may have some trouble to get the money we will need; then he's straight and a very good sort."
"But what will you do when the patent's granted?"
"We can talk about that later. It will be some time before the mine is yours, and I'm not certain that we have heard the last of Stormont."
"Very well," said Agatha. "I like Mr. Scott and feel I can trust him because he is your friend. Do what you think best; I leave it all to you."
She went away with very mixed feelings, and was glad to reach the shelter of the woods. Her face was hot and her nerves were jarred, but when she got calmer she laughed—a rather strained laugh. It was a lover she wanted, not a manager, and unless Thirlwell was strangely dull she had been firmly repulsed. She hoped he was dull, but it seemed impossible that he had not understood. Then it was significant that he had shown some strain and she found comfort in this. After all, the line he took had cost him much and his obstinacy might break down.
Besides, when one looked at it dispassionately, the situation was humorous. She had engaged Thirlwell for her manager, but nothing had been said about his wages, which she could not pay; for that matter, she was in his debt. Although she was the prospective owner of a valuable mine, she had only a few dollars left of the money George had given her; hardly enough, in fact, to pay for a week's board when she reached Toronto. Her post there had, no doubt, been filled.
The ore was rich, but might get poor, and she knew enough about mining to realize the difficulties that must yet be overcome. Getting the money she would need for the preliminary work was perhaps the worst; and if the money could be raised, it would be a long time before she could look for much return. Still she was not alone; Thirlwell had promised to help and she knew he would not fail her. She meant to let him help, not because she wanted to get rich, but because she really knew what had influenced him, and suspected that he was not as strong as he thought.
For all that, she kept out of his way as much as possible while they camped by the creek, although she was careful to talk with easy friendliness when they met at meals. Thirlwell, however, was generally occupied, and when he had made a rough survey of the claims they started south. The loads were light now and he forced the pace because he was anxious, and felt responsible. There was another prospecting party, with an unscrupulous leader, not far off, and one's title to a mineral claim is open to dispute until the record is filed. Although Agatha's prosperity would be his loss, he meant to run no risk. He was her manager and must justify her trust.
When they reached the lake he found there would be some delay. They had covered the canoes with branches, but the pine-needles had withered off and the hot sun had opened the seams. Some of the thin planks were badly split, one had sprung away from its fastenings, and it would take a few days to repair the damage without proper tools. The caulking composition he had brought would not go round, and he had to send the Metis into the bush to look for gum to make the Indian pitch. Then it cost him a day's hard labor to rough out new plans with an ax and saw, and he afterwards found he must make a steaming-box to soften the wood so that it would bend into place.
On the second night he was tired and disturbed, but his sleep was light and he wakened shortly before daybreak. It was not dark; he could see the trunks behind the camp and Agatha's white tent. The ripples broke upon the beach with a gentle splash, and there was a faint sighing in the pine-tops. Except for all this all was very quiet, and he wondered whether he had heard a canoe paddle in his dreams. Then, not far off, a stone rattled as if it had been trodden on.
Thirlwell got up quietly and glanced about the camp. The men were asleep. He counted their indistinct figures, wrapped in blankets; nobody was missing. Still somebody had disturbed a loose stone and he moved cautiously into the gloom. One could not creep up to an Indian, but Thirlwell imagined there were none about, and if an Indian had meant to steal something, he would not have crossed the slanting bank strewn with large gravel, from which the noise had come. Thirlwell, himself, would not have done so, for he had learned to be silent, when hunting in the bush. He suspected a clumsy white man, from the cities. When he got near the bank he stopped behind a tree. There was a narrow opening, but he saw nobody and heard nothing except the wind in the pine-tops.
He tried to creep round the opening, but fell among a clump of wild-berry canes. They were green and did not rustle much, but he knew that after this it would be useless to go on with the search. Besides, he was not certain that a man had disturbed the stone. The camp-fire had gone out and an animal might have come down to drink. He grumbled at his awkwardness and going back to camp, went to sleep again.
In the morning he returned to the bank, but found no tracks. He could account for the stone falling in two or three natural ways, but the splash of the paddle was a different thing. Still he had not actually heard the noise, but, so to speak, wakened with its echo in his ears, and sitting down, he pondered the matter. Supposing that somebody from Stormont's gang had prowled about the camp, it was difficult to see the fellow's object. Thirlwell did not doubt that Stormont knew he was the leader of Agatha's party and she could do nothing without his help. If Driscoll had been with his former confederate, one could have understood the thing. Black Steve had an Indian's cunning and the instincts of a savage animal, but he was dead and Stormont was a rascal of another kind. Steve's primitive methods would not appeal to him. Thirlwell gave up the puzzle and got about his work.
STORMONT TRIES A BRIBE
When the light began to fade Thirlwell put W down his tools and went off to try to catch a trout. He had noted that Drummond was not about the camp and when he got near the mouth of a creek where he meant to fish thought he saw an indistinct figure some distance in front. It vanished, but he felt he had not been deceived and stopped for a minute or two.
Although he had no grounds for distrusting Drummond, he had marked certain weaknesses in his character. The lad might have gone to fish, but Thirlwell had not seen him make a rod, and remembering the falling stone resolved to find out. The wood was thin, but the light was dim, and the turmoil of the creek would drown any noise he made. After walking obliquely inland for some distance he stopped to listen. He heard nothing, but Drummond was now between him and the lake, and Thirlwell thought he could not get across the creek. He came down to the mouth of the latter cautiously, and when he was close to the lake stopped behind a trunk. The water glimmered between the trees, and he saw two dark figures outlined against the pale reflection.
There was some risk of his being seen, but he thought if Drummond was afraid he might be followed, he would watch the bush along the edge of the lake, and he advanced cautiously, moving from trunk to trunk. A thicket of wild-berries grew near the water, and stealing up behind it, he stopped and crouched down. Drummond was perhaps a dozen yards off, and stood, holding a fishing-rod, while Stormont sat on a fallen log opposite. Thirlwell clenched his fist and listened. He could hear them talk.
"How'd you know you'd find me here?" Drummond asked.
"I didn't know," said Stormont; "it was good luck. I wanted to find out if Thirlwell had finished the canoes. One can see into your camp from the top of the high ground, and I've brought good glasses."
It was plain that Drummond had not gone to meet the fellow, and Thirlwell saw that he had, to some extent, misjudged the lad. For all that, Drummond had reached the spot a few minutes before he did, and something had obviously been said in the meantime. If possible, he must find out what they had talked about.
"Take a smoke; this is a pretty good cigar," Stormont resumed. "You'll let a soft snap go if you don't do what I want."
"You put me on to a soft snap before," Drummond remarked with a touch of scorn.
"I think you got fifty dollars—for nothing. Anyhow, I want you and I'm willing to pay in advance."
"With a cheque that can be stopped!"
Stormont laughed. "No. I don't pay for this kind of job by cheque. You can have it in bills; I've got a wad in my pocket. Better take your money now than trust Thirlwell to let you in when he makes good his claim; but if you like, I'll give you some stock when we float our company."
"I'll take the bills," said Drummond in a meaning tone. "But you want to put it high."
Thirlwell found it hard to control his anger. Drummond had professed some liking for him and had made no secret of his devotion to Agatha, but now he was coolly bargaining with her antagonist. It looked as if he was willing to betray her if he could get a good price. For all that, Thirlwell saw that he must find out the plot and lay still behind the thicket, watching the lad. Drummond's pose was easy and his voice was calm. He had not lighted the cigar Stormont gave him, and now and then twisted it round carelessly.
"Very well," Stormont resumed. "As I've got to bid against Thirlwell, I'll risk five hundred dollars: two hundred and fifty now. Then, as soon as we make a good start, you can have a job in the company's office."
"Oh, shucks!" said Drummond. "Five hundred dollars for a silver mine? You can't find the lode unless I put you wise."
"That's not going to bother us. Thirlwell has left a trail we can follow without your help. Well, you've heard my offer. What do you say?"
"I'm thinking some. I get two hundred and fifty dollars now, but what about the rest? Suppose I have to wait until you put the job over? How are you going to put it over when Thirlwell holds the claims?"
"They won't be worth much after I get to work. Going to law's expensive and Thirlwell can't stand up to the men who are backing me. He'll be glad to sell out at our price when we put the screw to him."
This was illuminating to Thirlwell, since it justified his fears. The mining regulations were complicated, and it was not unusual for unscrupulous speculators to dispute a poor man's claim. He knew of instances where grave injustice had been done. Moreover, he noted that Stormont said nothing about Agatha, but thought him the prospective owner of the minerals. People obviously took it for granted that he meant to marry the girl.
"Your job is to stop Thirlwell," Stormont went on. "The thing must be done cleverly and look like an accident. The best plan would be to get at the canoes. They're hauled up side by side and you might perhaps set them on fire when he makes his caulking gum. Or you might knock loose a plank or two in the bottom. Anyhow, you'll have to hold him up long enough for me to pull out his stakes."
Thirlwell, burning with indignation, found it hard to keep still. It was a cunning plot, because a few days' delay might enable Stormont to re-stake the ground and file his record first. If this were done, Agatha would have to bear the disadvantage of challenging his claim and, if the law expenses were heavy, might be forced to compromise. Still, he controlled his rage.
"The thing's not as easy as it looks," Drummond replied. "Thirlwell's not a fool. If you, want me to put it over, you'll have to come up."
"A good job in our office and six hundred dollars: three hundred now. If Thirlwell finds out and gets after you, come along to my camp."
"Where is your camp?"
"Behind some rocks, about two miles up the lake. Follow the creek and you'll come to a log that has fallen across."
"Very well; I'll take the money."
Stormont pulled out his wallet, and then Thirlwell came near to betraying himself, because the dramatic surprise was almost too much for his self-control. Drummond snatched the bills from the other's hand and laughed, a savage, scornful laugh.
"You thieving hog; you blasted fool!" he cried.
"What d'you mean?" Stormont shouted, springing to his feet.
"Did you think you could play me for a sucker twice?" Drummond rejoined. "Three hundred dollars, for my claim on the lode? That's what it comes to, and I reckon that's all I'd get!" He flung out his hand, scattering the crumpled bills. "There's your dirty money. I've got you corralled!"
Stormont was quiet; dangerously quiet Thirlwell thought, because it was obvious that Drummond had led him on until he learned his plans. He stooped and began to pick up the bills, moving about, for the bits of paper were scattered and indistinct. One had fallen by a heavy stone, and Thirlwell felt his nerves tingle as Stormont got nearer. Drummond did not seem to be suspicious; his pose was careless, and Thirlwell imagined the lad was enjoying his triumph. Both thought they were alone and they stood on a ledge that ran out into deep water.
Then Stormont clutched the stone and Thirlwell sprang to his feet. The fellow's caution had given way; mocked and cheated by the lad he meant to use, he had suddenly become primitive in his disappointed greed and rage. It looked as if Drummond did not know his danger; but as Thirlwell ran forward Stormont lifted the stone and the lad leaped upon him like a wild cat.
Thirlwell stopped. For the moment he did not see how he could interfere without doing harm, and thought Drummond did not need his help. The men were locked in a savage grapple at the edge of the ledge and the ripples splashed upon the rocks four or five feet below. Stormont had been deceived to the end. It is hard for a white man to match the instinctive cunning that goes with a strain of Indian blood, and Drummond had suspected that the other meant to pick up the stone.
Neither saw Thirlwell. They swayed and panted, striking when they got an arm loose, and then pressing body against body while each strained for a grip to lift his antagonist from his feet. Stormont, indeed, made a better fight than Thirlwell had expected, but after a time his knees bent, his head went back, and Drummond threw him heavily. When he struck the ground he felt for his pocket, but Drummond fell upon him with a cry that was like a wild beast's howl.
Thirlwell saw it was time to interfere. An Indian never forgets an injury, and Drummond had inherited his father's grim Scottish stubbornness. He rolled over with Stormont, and then getting uppermost, savagely bumped his head against the rock. This gave Thirlwell his opportunity, and seizing the lad's shoulders, he pressed his knee against the small of his back.
"Stop!" he shouted. "Do you mean to kill the man?"
"Sure!" gasped Drummond. "Lemme go!"
"You'd better quit. I've got you tight."
Drummond struggled furiously, but since he could not turn round found it impossible to break loose. His hands, however, were free and he gave Stormont's head another violent bump. Then Thirlwell, using his knee as a fulcrum, pulled the lad's shoulders back until he cried out with pain and let go. Thirlwell threw him off and stepped between the two before they could get up.
"This has got to stop and I'm fresh and able to see it does stop. If you try to start again, Drummond, I'll throw you into the lake," he said, and turned to Stormont, who did not move. "Get up."
Stormont did so, shakily. "I suppose you had this thing fixed with him!"
"I had not. I came along by accident and it might have been better if I'd left you to Drummond and gone off again. It was rather for his sake than yours I butted in. Can you walk?"
Stormont said he thought he could, and Thirlwell indicated the bush. "Then get off and take the hint that it's prudent to leave the Agatha Mine alone."
When Stormont had gone, Thirlwell turned to Drummond, who was now standing up. "Are you hurt?"
"Not much. I don't mind if I am hurt, so long as Stormont is. But why in thunder did you come just then?"
"It's lucky I did," said Thirlwell dryly. "I think you saw he wanted to get that stone?"
"Sure; I meant to let him. Wanted him to fire the rock and begin the circus. Then, when he'd made me mad enough, I'd have finished it."
"It would have been awkward if he'd brought a pistol."
Drummond smiled. "He thought he had, but he'd forgot the thing. I'd been studying his clothes; blue shirt and thin overalls. There wasn't a bulge." Then he stooped and picked up a crumpled bill. "Five dollars; don't see much use in leaving money lying round."
He hesitated, and then putting the bill in his pocket, remarked: "Anyhow, he gave me the wad. Let's see if I can find another."
Thirlwell laughed and told him to rest for a few minutes, because he wanted to think. Stormont had obviously returned to what he imagined was a good center to work from in his search for the vein, and had seen the smoke of Thirlwell's fire. He could now follow back the latter's trail and then make for the Record Office after altering the stakes. If he did so, the probability was that he would arrive too late, but accidents often happen in the bush and Thirlwell meant to leave nothing to luck. Moreover, Stormont had given him a hint when he tried to bribe Drummond to damage the canoes. In the wilds, travel depends upon the means of transport, since one cannot go far without food, and Thirlwell did not see why he should not carry on the game Stormont had meant to play. He told Drummond his plan.
"Well," said the latter thoughtfully, "I guess his packers will be asleep in camp, but we want to get there before he does and he's gone off first."
"He'll go round by the log he talked about and I don't think he's able to walk very fast. Then we'll save some time by going through the creek."
"That's so," Drummond agreed. "We'd better hustle."
They crossed the mouth of the creek, wading among the boulders and swimming a few yards, and then followed the edge of the lake. They could see for some distance across the water, but the woods were dark and Stormont would have some trouble in making his way through the brush. He would be behind them if he came down to the lake, but it was obvious that they must carry out their plans before he arrived.
When Thirlwell thought they were near the camp they left the beach and crept cautiously into the darkness among the trees that grew upon a rocky point. Now and then the underbrush rustled and a low branch cracked, but they heard nothing when they stopped and listened. After a few minutes they reached the other side of the point and lay down among the stones. In front, a narrow bay opened, with the shadowy bush running round. Two canoes lay on the beach, and although they were black and indistinct, Thirlwell imagined they had only been pulled up a few feet.
Farther back, the glow of a fire flickered among the trunks, but it was a small fire and burned low and red. Stormont had, no doubt, given orders that no smoke must be made. A tent, half seen in the gloom, stood at the edge of the bush, but Thirlwell could not see the packers. It looked as if they were asleep, because all was quiet except for the wind in the trees and the distant splash of the creek. The breeze was light but blew off the shore. This would suit Thirlwell's plan, but it would be difficult not to make some noise and he must not be caught. The packers were rough men and he rather thought he had taken a risk he ought not to have run.
Touching Drummond's arm, he slid down a slab of rock and crouched in the gloom on the ledge below. His boots had scratched the stone, and he listened when Drummond came down, but there was no movement in the camp. Dropping from the ledge, he reached the shingle, which rattled sharply, and for a moment or two he stopped and held his breath. He heard nothing, and making Drummond a sign to be cautious, went on again. They were now confronted by perhaps the most dangerous part of their task, for one cannot cross a stony beach in silence and men used to the wilds are easily wakened by a suspicious noise. Besides, the water glimmered, and Thirlwell would have liked a darker background.
Still he meant to reach the canoes, and moved on, leaning forward to shorten his height and stepping as gently as he could. When the stones rattled he and Drummond sank down and waited, but heard nothing to alarm them, and at length stopped and lay down beside the canoes. They could not be seen now, but what they must do next was risky, and Thirlwell wanted to get his breath. Although he had not used much muscular exertion, his nerves tingled and his face was wet with sweat.
After a few moments, he got on his knees and felt inside the canoe. It had not been unloaded and this was the craft to launch, although the weight would make a difference. Lying down again, he felt along the keel and found that the gravel was small and mixed with sand. Then he touched something round and knew that a roller had been put under the canoe in order that she might be pulled up without disturbing the cargo. This was a stroke of luck, because it would help him to run her down.
He touched Drummond, and getting up seized the gunwale. They strained their muscles, but for a moment or two could not move the craft; then the roller jarred across a stone, there was a crunch of gravel, and she stopped, a foot lower down. Thirlwell gasped and moved his hands to get another grip. He thought they had made an alarming noise, but it was too late to be cautious. They must finish the job.
"Lift her as you shove!" he said.
She went a yard, with the roller jolting in the sand, and there was a splash as her after-end took the water. He could not understand why the packers had not wakened, but there was no movement in the camp, and the next effort would be easier, since the stern was nearly afloat.
"Again!" he gasped. "Quietly, but with all your strength!"
The roller ran smoothly and they followed the canoe down. When their feet were in the water they gave her a last push and small ripples splashed about them as she slid out on the lake. The impetus would carry her some distance and the off-shore breeze would do the rest.
"I guess we'll light out now," Drummond remarked.
They regained the point and the camp was quiet. The canoe was distinguishable, but Thirlwell thought he would not have seen her had he not known where to look; it was plain that she was drifting across the lake. Five minutes later they heard somebody coming through the bush, and dropped behind a boulder. They could not see the man, but heard him push through a thicket and then stumble among some stones. He passed, and when they went on again Drummond laughed.
"Looks as if he was pretty savage, but he's hitting up a smarter clip than I thought he could make. Guess he'll feel worse in the morning."
Thirlwell agreed. The canoe would be out of sight when Stormont reached the camp, and it was unlikely that he would miss her until next day. She was, no doubt, loaded with food and prospecting tools, and Thirlwell had gained an important advantage by setting her adrift, since Stormont would not venture farther north without supplies. He had probably some stores in camp and would find the canoe, but if she stranded on a beach far up the lake, the search might cost some time. The delay would give Thirlwell a longer start.
He had fitted the new planks in his canoes and when he got back wakened the Metis and melted the caulking gum. By daybreak the seams were hard and after a hurried breakfast the party paddled across the lake. He would sooner have waited to see if Stormont would try to retaliate, but this would be rash. If the canoes were damaged or he were injured, it might prevent him from getting back to record the claims.
GEORGE REPROACHES HIMSELF
The days were getting shorter fast, but the evening was warm when George Strange leaned against the rails of Farnam's veranda. He had arrived, looking anxious, as supper was served, but did not state why he felt disturbed and Mrs. Farnam waited. She knew he had come to consult her, and thought she knew what about. Now he gazed moodily across the orchard, where red and yellow apples gleamed on the bent branches. The slanting sunbeams struck across the trees, which melted, farther off, into the blue shadow of the bush.
"That's a great show of fruit," he remarked.
"Pretty good," Farnam agreed. "Reports indicate that packers won't find much surplus for shipping in the United States, and prices will be high. In fact, I rather think my speculation is justified. Although clearing new ground and buying young trees made a drain on my capital—"
"Don't tell him he's enterprising! He's too adventurous," interrupted Mrs. Farnam, who wanted to give George a lead. "It's exciting to take chances, but they don't always turn out as one hopes. But how's your business? I understand trade is dull."
"I have known it better, but that's not bothering me."
"Still as you don't look serene, I imagine something is bothering you."
"I don't feel serene, and that's why I came. You know Agatha better than anybody else. Have you heard from her recently?"
"Not since the letter she sent me when she reached the mine, and you saw that. I'm getting anxious. She has stopped some time and the school has reopened."
"She has stopped too long," said George, whose face got red. "It looks as if you didn't know they had filled her post."
"I was afraid they might do so, but it's a shock all the same. But perhaps you can do something. You persuaded the principal and managers when Agatha was ill."
"I've come from Toronto and I saw the principal," George replied. "Couldn't get at anybody else and imagine they didn't want to see me."
"Well?" said Mrs. Farnam when he stopped with some embarrassment.
"She was very polite, with the kind of politeness that freezes you. Didn't say much—nothing that I could get hold of and deny. But she implied a lot."
"You can be frank. I believe I'm Agatha's oldest friend and I trust my husband with all I know."
"Very well; I've got to talk. Miss Southern began by supposing I had come to explain my sister's neglect of her duty, which had made things awkward at the school. I said I had not; I didn't know why Agatha had not come back, but had no doubt it was because she found it impossible. She'd gone off on an excursion into the northern bush, and accidents happened. One lost one's canoes and provisions ran out.
"Miss Southern said it was plain that as Agatha had important duties she ought not to run such a risk, and asked what was the object of the excursion.
"I said it was a prospecting trip. Agatha had gone to find some silver ore; and Miss Southern gave me a look that made me mad. It hinted that she thought my statement much too thin! Then she remarked that the managers felt that their teachers must concentrate on their work and divided interests made for slackness. In short, as Agatha had not come back, they had got somebody else to take her post.
"That was a knock, but I said I supposed they'd give her a first-rate testimonial if she applied for another job.
"She looked as if she didn't want to hurt me, but admitted that they would be willing to state that Agatha had ability and taught science well. Then she stopped and I asked if she could go no farther. Ability wasn't all a teacher needed.
"She said she must agree, and hinted that she had expected much from Agatha, but felt badly disappointed now. She remarked that managers made searching inquiries when they engaged a teacher for young girls and thought I could understand that she felt responsible—
"Well, I'd had enough. I said my sister was fit for a better job than the best they'd got and wouldn't bother them for a recommendation. Then I left; thought I'd better quit before I let myself go." George paused and wiped his hot face. "You see how I was fixed? I could have bluffed a man into making a plain statement and then have knocked him out; but that cool, polite lady made me hate my helplessness."
"You were at a disadvantage," Mrs. Farnam agreed with a smile that was half amused and half sympathetic. "But I wonder who told her! Do you think that fellow Stormont—"
"I'm going to find out," George said grimly. "In the meantime, it's not important. I reckon you understand what this thing implies? If these people won't support Agatha's application, she can't get another post. She'd have made her mark teaching, but now all that's gone; she's turned down, and I'm responsible!"
"You are not to blame. I wonder whether she really knew the risk?"
"She knew she'd lose her job, but it wouldn't stop her; Agatha's like that! Anyhow, I am to blame," George rejoined. "I'm the head of the family and ought to have made her cut out the blamed foolish notion. I knew what the lode meant to my mother and how she hated to hear the old man talk about it. It took him—and now it's got my sister—"
He stopped, struggling with emotion, and Mrs. Farnam said:
"Perhaps I ought to have given Agatha a plainer hint; but, except for school managers, we're not very conventional people in this country. Then I liked her pluck. It's weak to give way to the prejudices of censorious folks. Besides, in a sense, she really wasn't rash."
"That's not the trouble," George replied with heat. "I know my sister; so do you! But she's got to start business since she can't teach school, and I hate to think of her clerking in a store. She has talent and ambition."
"Talent will make its way anywhere," Farnam remarked consolingly.
"I don't know! Agatha's proud and has no use for the cheap tricks that help you get ahead of the other man. She won't advertise her smartness and she's too dignified to snatch at chances among the scrambling crowd. I've pushed through; but it has put some marks on me, and I'm most afraid my sister's going to be hurt."
"You're taking it for granted she won't find the lode," Farnam resumed.
"Shucks!" said George with scorn. "All the comfort I've got is knowing she won't have the money to waste on looking for the ore again—"
He stopped and listened to a rattle of wheels. "Some of your friends coming? Don't mean to be rude, but I hope they're not. I'm not in a mood to talk to strangers."
"We expect nobody," Farnam replied. "I ordered some goods from Kingston, and Gordon's man promised to bring them from the depot if they came."
The rattle got louder, but the trees hid the rig, which was approaching the back of the house. It stopped, there were steps in the hall, and Mrs. Farnam turned with an exclamation. Farnam pushed his chair back and George sprang upright as Agatha came out on the veranda.
She was very brown and thin; her clothes were new, but obviously cheap and the fit was bad. As she glanced at the group she smiled and there was nothing in her tranquil manner to indicate the repentant prodigal. She kissed Mrs. Farnam and gave George her hand.
"It really looks as if you were rather surprised than pleased," she remarked.
"We're both," said Mrs. Farnam. "But how did you come? It's some time since the Toronto train got in. George has been here nearly an hour."
"Your neighbor's hired man drove me from the station. I came by Amprior and Prescott; there was a wash-out on the Sudbury track. But what was George doing at Toronto?"
"Looking after your business," George replied. "I'm afraid you've got to brace up. They told me you were fired!"
Agatha laughed. "I expected something like that! It really doesn't matter."
"It doesn't matter!" George exclaimed, and gasped with indignation. "Anyhow, it matters to me. I've been fuming and fretting since I saw your principal." He turned to the others, as if for support. "What can you do with a girl who talks in this way? How'm I to make her understand?"
"I think you had better wait a little," Mrs. Farnam said and glanced at Agatha. "But did you travel in those clothes, my dear? Where did you buy them?"
"At a bush store," said Agatha, smiling. "They were not as cheap as they look, and my others had worn to rags. Besides, I hadn't much time, and it wasn't worth while to bother about my dress."
"You don't seem to bother about much," George remarked. "In fact, you've come back with a lordly calm that's as exasperating as it's unjustifiable."
Agatha gave him a thoughtful look. "Is Florence well?"
"Quite well. She's disturbed about you."
"Then it's probably business! I suppose trade is bad?"
George lost his self-control. He was glad to see her back, but remembered what he had suffered for her sake.
"My business doesn't occupy all my thoughts and you have made a blamed poor joke! Here am I and your friends, trying to grapple with an awkward situation and puzzling how we're to help you out, and you laugh. So far as I can see, there's nothing humorous—"
"Don't be cross," Agatha interrupted. "I don't need helping out. If business isn't very good, I can offer you a post."
George made an abrupt movement and looked hard at her. Farnam laughed softly, and his wife leaned forward.
"You see, I've found the lode. It's richer than I thought," Agatha resumed.
There was silence for a few moments, and then George said: "I want time to get hold of this. You found the ore the old man talked about! It's not another stupid joke?"
"Not at all. Father located the vein on his last journey and left a paper with directions. Mr. Thirlwell found it in his tobacco-box. The directions were not complete and we had some trouble—but we'll talk about this later. The claim is recorded and Mr. Thirlwell has gone back to begin the development. Mr. Scott, his employer, is coming to see you."
"Well," said George dully, "I'll own I've got a knock. I reckoned if there was a lode, it would never be found. Looks as if I didn't know as much as I thought. But that's not all. Since I was old enough to guess my mother's fears I did the old man wrong. He's made good. I doubted, but you knew him best and you believed."
"Agatha's tired," Mrs. Farnam broke in. "She needs a rest and I'm going to get her some food. You can ask her what you like when I bring her back."
"I suppose you want to satisfy your curiosity first," Farnam suggested.
"We're not going to talk about mining," Mrs. Farnam rejoined. "However, I must do you justice; you took Agatha's side from the first. After all, your judgment's good now and then."
She took Agatha away and when they had gone George remarked: "I can't grip the thing yet. It's hard to get rid of a fixed idea you've had from boyhood. Still I ought to have known that Agatha wouldn't undertake a job she couldn't put over."
It was getting dark when Mrs. Farnam and the girl came back, and George said, "Now I want to know all about your trip. Begin where you left the cars and go right on."
"That will take some time," Mrs. Farnam interposed. "Shall I light the lamp in the room?"
"I think not," said Agatha, and smiled. "My story goes best with the twilight in the open. We had no lamps and pretty furniture in the bush."
She was silent for a few moments, looking across the orchard. The fruit trees were blurred and dim and the pines were black, but the sky shone softly red and green above their ragged tops. Then she began to talk; disjointedly at first, but the scenes she recalled got clearer as she went on, and she forgot her audience. It was her business to make things plain; she had studied this part of her vocation and unconsciously used her power to seize and hold the other's interest, but she did not know that she was drawing a lifelike portrait of her guide. Mrs. Farnam knew, and with a tactful question here and there led the girl forward.
It was, however, impossible to relate her journey and leave Thirlwell out. He took the leading part that belonged to him, and his character was firmly outlined by her memory of the things he had said and done. With something besides artistic talent Agatha unconsciously developed the sketch, dwelling upon his cheerfulness, courage, and resource. She told the others how he had nerved her to resolute effort when they had difficulties to overcome, sympathized when she was tired, and held the confidence of his men. Moreover, she made it obvious that there had been no romantic philandering. He had given her an unselfish, brotherly protection.
The narrative lost something of its force after she came to the finding of the broken range. She saw she had been franker than she thought, and the change in Thirlwell could not be talked about. It was dark now, the red and green had faded above the trees, and she was grateful for the gloom. She was not afraid of George and Farnam, but did not want Mabel to study her. Only the latter noted that she paused awkwardly now and then and added a rather involved explanation. The men were engrossed by Thirlwell's efforts to find the ore. When she stopped they were quiet for a few moments.
Then George said: "You would never have struck the lode without that man." He turned to the others. "Some story of a prospecting trip! What do you think?"
"I think Agatha was very lucky," Mrs. Farnam said with meaning. "Perhaps luckier than she deserved."
"Thirlwell's all right," George bluntly agreed, and then addressed Agatha: "You have often got after me about being a business man, and I'll own I don't let many chances of making a dollar pass. But this thing goes back of business. Thirlwell's entitled to half of all you get."
Agatha was moved. She had found out some time since that she had not always understood George.
"I offered him half," she said and paused. "He wouldn't accept."
Mrs. Farnam, seeing the girl was embarrassed, got up. "I'm cold. We had better go in."
When she had lighted the lamp, Farnam went out and came back with a tray of bottles and glasses.
"It's not often we celebrate an event like this," he said as he opened a bottle. "We have no wine, but this is some of our own hard cider that I meant to send to the Fruit-Growers' Exhibition. There's nothing else good enough."
He filled the glasses and with a few happy words wished Agatha success. She thanked him and afterwards stood up, very straight but silent, and with her eyes shining softly lifted her glass above her head. The others lifted theirs, in grave quietness, for they knew what she meant. The pioneers touch the ridge-pole of the tent, or the roof-tree of the shack, when they drink to the memory of comrades who have gone out on the last lone trail. But George's look was troubled and his hand shook.
"He made good," he said, and added, when they had drunk and Farnam refilled the glasses: "Here's to the man who helped you prove it; the man who did my job!"
Mrs. Farnam studied Agatha and noted the softness of her look. Then she took the girl away and some time afterwards, when they were talking in her room, remarked: "There's an obvious end to your romance, my dear. I suppose you're going to marry Thirlwell?"
Agatha blushed, but gave her a steady glance. "He has not asked me."
Mrs. Farnam pondered this and then made a sign of understanding. "I think I see; the man is white, although perhaps he's foolishly proud. In fact, I imagine he's worth one's taking some trouble about—"
She stopped, seeing Agatha's frown, and then resumed with a smile: "No; I'm not going to meddle! It's better to wait. He's a man, after all; you really have some charm, and human nature's strong."
A CHANGE OF LUCK
Scott met George at Montreal, and after spending some days there left for New York. When he stated the time of his return, George sent for Agatha and in the evening they went to meet him at the Grand Trunk Station. As they walked down the hill and by the Cathedral, Agatha felt excited. She had soon discovered that it was one thing to find a silver vein and another to raise the capital one required to open up the mine and refine the ore. The cost of these operations, as calculated by Scott, seemed enormous, and people rich enough to help either wanted the largest share of the profit or were frankly skeptical. George had got promises of some support, but much depended on the result of Scott's visit to his wealthy friends.
It was dark when they walked up and down outside the platform gates; the train was late, and Agatha tried to control her nervous impatience. She could trust George's judgment about money matters and she liked Scott, but she had got a habit of looking to Thirlwell when difficulties must be met, and he could not help her now. He was in the North, where winter would soon begin, doing her work with drill and giant powder. It was good work that demanded strength and courage and knowledge of Nature's laws; she would have liked to have been there with him, instead of in the city where one must grapple with commercial subtleties.
By and by a bell tolled, there was a harsh rattle as the cars rolled in, and a few moments later Scott pushed through the crowd at the gate. Agatha went to meet him under a big lamp and saw by his look that he had been successful.
"I have fixed things and imagine you'll approve," he said, as she gave him her hand.
"That's a relief," George remarked. "We'll talk about it when we've got some supper."
Scott laughed. "I think we'll call it dinner to-night. I'm suffering from a natural reaction after our Spartan habits at the mine, and believe the occasion indicates the Place Viger. In fact, I telegraphed about a table and rooms."
They drove across the city, and Agatha looked about with some amusement and curiosity as she ate her dinner among wealthy English and American tourists in the big dining-room. George had taken her to a hotel of another kind that catered for small business men, but she hoped Scott's fastidious choice of the wines and the late flowers he had ordered were justified. As she studied some of the other women's clothes and contrasted them with hers, he looked up with a twinkle.
"It's obvious that Toronto can hold its own with London, Paris, and New York," he said. "However, if you're fond of diamonds and such ornaments, there's no reason you should exercise much self-denial."
"I don't know if I'm fond of diamonds or not. I have never had any," Agatha replied.
"Well, they're quite unnecessary, but you'll soon be able to have them if you like. Your brother is plainly cautious; it will be your privilege to enlarge his views."
George smiled rather grimly. "Agatha and I were brought up in a shabby frame house behind a store and learned to think of cents instead of dollars. Our father made some sacrifice to start us well; I know what it cost him now."
"Perhaps we had better tell Miss Strange what we have done. When they have brought us our coffee we'll find a quiet place where we can talk."
Some minutes later they sat down at a small table: behind a pillar in a spacious room, and Scott took out a bundle of documents.
"This is the first meeting of the Agatha Mine Company, and it's proper that Miss Strange should be our chairman. To begin with, we must appoint executive officials and the president comes first. I think the place belongs to Mr. Strange."
"No," said George, "the treasurer's my job. You want a business man to keep a tight hand on the money."
They looked at Agatha, who made a sign of agreement. "Mr. Scott will be president."
"Very well. The next is the general manager. Thirlwell's the best man I know."
"I appointed him some time since," Agatha replied. "It's his post as long as he likes, and he ought to be paid better than anybody else."
George glanced humorously at Scott. Agatha's manner was imperious and her voice resolute. It looked is if she meant to use her new authority. Scott nodded and gave her a document.
"The shareholders may have something to say about these appointments later. In the meantime, this is a draft of our constitution. I must state that we could have kept all the profit if we had borrowed the money we need, but we should have had to pay high interest. On the whole, it seemed better to float a small company; just large enough, in fact, to get the protection the law allows a registered joint-stock body. We find we can get the money easier in this way, and it divides the risk. You will see that a large block of shares is reserved for yourself and your brother; I take some in payment for the men and supplies I am sending Thirlwell; and a number will be allotted at about ninety, to the people who find the cash."
Agatha studied the document and gave it to George. "What does issuing the stock at ninety mean?"
"Ninety cents for the dollar's worth of stock," George explained. "That's a ten per cent. margin when it touches face value and it will soon go higher."
"I see," said Agatha. "But the mine is ours, and by parting with these shares we lose control."
"Not altogether," Scott replied. "Every share carries a vote. You and your brother hold a large block, and the friends I've persuaded to join us will vote with me. Of course, if anybody bought up the most part of the other shares, he could give us trouble, but that's not likely. When it's obvious that we're making a good profit none of the holders will be willing to sell. In the meantime, some of the people are sending up a mining expert, and if they're satisfied with his opinion they'll give us the money."
"I suppose it's a good arrangement," said Agatha. "But before I agree you must send the draft to Thirlwell."
"It might mean some delay. However, I expect he'll come down from the mine to meet the expert, and if you insist—"
"I do insist," said Agatha. "I can do nothing until I know what my manager thinks."
Scott promised to mail the document, and Agatha remarked: "When the people have taken up the shares there will be some left."
"That is so," said George. "It may be convenient later; I dare say we will want more money when we begin the smelting, but we'll probably be able to issue the stock at a dollar then. In fact, I reckon we'll presently have to ask for power to extend our capital."
"You must only sell this reserve block to people you can trust," said Agatha, who began to ask questions about the mine.
Scott was surprised to find how much she knew, but he told her all he could and it was late in the evening when the party broke up.
The engineer whom the subscribers sent North returned with a satisfactory report, and Thirlwell got to work. He had much to do, and although he was undecided about the future, resolved to stay until he had opened up the vein. From the beginning he had to grapple with numerous obstacles, for when he drove his adit the water broke in and the rock was treacherous. Still he had tunneled far enough to escape the frost when winter began, and the snow that stopped all surface work made transport easier. One could travel straight across divides and frozen lakes, and the sledges ran smoothly on the ice. When the trail south was broken he built shacks at the camping places and kept a gang of half-breeds felling trees and improving the road.
After some months, he found it necessary to visit the railroad settlement, and reaching it one evening, tired and numbed by cold, followed his sledge to the hotel in a thoughtful mood. For one thing, he must write to Strange, whose last letter had hinted that he was anxious, and it would be hard to send an encouraging report. The ore was good, but the vein was thin and expensive to work. In fact, the working cost was much higher than he had thought. When he entered the hotel he was dazzled by the light, and the sudden change of temperature made him dizzy. He stopped, wondering whether his eyes had deceived him, as a man dressed in clothes that were obviously English came forward.
"Hallo, Jim!" said the latter.
"Allott!" exclaimed Thirlwell. "What are you doing here?"
The other laughed. "I left Helen at New York. She's going to Florida for the winter with her American friends and I thought I'd look you up before I followed. I've news, but it will keep until you have had some food."
Had Thirlwell not been an important man, he would probably have had to wait until next morning for a meal, but the landlord's wife bustled about and supper was soon on the table. There were no other guests, and when Thirlwell's appetite was satisfied he and Allott pulled their chairs to the stove. The floor was not covered, the rough board walls were cracked, and a tarry liquid dripped from the bend where the stovepipe pierced the ceiling.
"The hotel is not luxurious and they have very crude ideas about cookery, but they tried to suit my fastidious taste when I told them I was a friend of yours," Allott remarked. "However, I don't suppose you are remarkably comfortable at the mine, and you can change all this when you like."
Thirlwell looked puzzled and Allott resumed: "You haven't opened your mail yet and I didn't suggest it, because I wanted to talk to you first. I wonder whether it will be a shock to hear that Sir James is dead?"
"I'm sorry," Thirlwell answered. "I think he'd have been kinder if I'd let him. Perhaps I ought to have indulged him more than I did; but I was obstinate, and—well, you know, he was harsh to my father—"
Allott made a sign of comprehension. "He died six weeks since and left Helen most of his money; but he didn't cut you out."
Thirlwell moved abruptly.
"I expected nothing!"
"That was obvious," Allott remarked with some dryness. "Sir James was very sore when you refused to come back, but he came round after a time. When he was ill he told Helen it was refreshing to find a man who could not be bought, and you were probably better fitted for roughing it in Canada than the career he had planned for you. He added that he doubted if there were many like you in that country. Still I think if you had married Evelyn, you'd have got a larger share."
"Ah," said Thirlwell, "I had forgotten Evelyn! Is she with Helen?"
"Your admission's significant. Evelyn married Campbell—you remember him? However, you don't seem very curious about your legacy."
"I was thinking about my quarrel with Sir James," Thirlwell replied. "But I am curious."
Allott told him about the will and Thirlwell mused for some minutes. His share was not very large, but he had expected nothing, and since he had known Agatha he had felt the strain of poverty. He was not rich now, but his handicap was lighter and he began to see a ray of hope. Then he opened a letter from the English lawyers and asked Allott some questions.
After a time Allott said, "Helen rather felt she was robbing you when she heard the will and she was excited when you told us about the mine. I hope the ore is as good as you thought."
"The ore is good, but difficult to work. Then I'm only manager; I hold no shares."
"If you wished, you could buy enough to give you some control."
"Yes; I shall do so, now I'm able."
"Well," said Allott, "Helen sent me to look you up and gave me a message. This money was something of a surprise, and after building a vinery and buying a new car, she doesn't know what to do with it. I pointed out that it could be invested on good security at three or four per cent., but she declares this is not enough. In short, she's resolved that you are to use the money to develop your mine, but she ordered me to mention that she expects a handsome profit."
Thirlwell smiled, although he was moved. He knew Mrs. Allott had tried to help him before, and it was plain that she had not resented his refusing her aid.
"I think I see," he answered. "Helen's very kind. We ought to make a profit, but there's a risk."
"Helen likes a risk. She's something of a gambler; for that matter, so am I. Besides, although you disappointed her once, she has a rather remarkable confidence in you. Now have you, so to speak, a sporting chance?"
"The situation's much like this," said Thirlwell thoughtfully; "the ore's rich, but I expect we'll spend all our money before we get results that would encourage the subscribers and warrant our asking for more capital."
"Then if you and Helen invested, it would enable your friends to carry on, and perhaps qualify you for a director's post?"
"Yes. I shall invest, but don't know that I'd be justified in using Helen's money yet. However, suppose you come up and look at the mine. The journey's not so rough now we have broken the trail and put up rest-shacks at the camps."
"Thanks," said Allott. "I hoped you were going to ask me."
They started in a few days and Allott spent a week at the mine. On the evening before he left, he sat talking with Thirlwell in the shack. The frost was arctic outside, but the night was calm, and the corner they occupied by the red-hot stove was comfortable.
"What about Helen's money?" Allott asked. "I'm not a miner, but the assay reports look remarkably good, and I imagine you'll get over your engineering troubles."
"The financial troubles are the worst," Thirlwell rejoined.
"Then why not take the money?"
Thirlwell pondered. It was his duty to help Agatha, and Mrs. Allott's offer, by making this easier, would enable him to earn the girl's gratitude. He meant to invest his share of the legacy, but felt that he ought not to risk his relative's capital for his private gain.
"I'll know better how we stand when we get the new machines to work. Then, if I think it's pretty safe, I'll buy some shares for Helen."
"Very well," said Allott. "I'll open an account for you at the Bank of Montreal, and Helen will give you legal power to act for her. This will enable you to command her proxy if you want to vote at a shareholders' meeting. If you don't use the money, she will get better interest than in England."
Thirlwell thanked him and Allott began to talk about something else.
The latter left the mine next morning and when he had gone Thirlwell occupied himself in strenuous and often dangerous work. He felt he had to some extent misled Agatha and Strange. Expenses had outrun his calculations and he had encountered obstacles he had not foreseen. More money would soon be needed, and he must get results that would encourage its subscription and warrant his using Mrs. Allott's capital.
Sometimes the adit roof came down and sometimes the sides crushed in; the inclination of the vein was irregular and the dip was often awkwardly steep. Then the pines about the mine were small and damaged by wind and forest-fires. It was difficult to find timber that would bear a heavy strain, and Thirlwell walked long distances in the stinging frost to look for proper logs, and now and then camped with his choppers behind a snowbank. For all that, he made progress, and as he pushed on the adit his confidence in the vein grew stronger. Expenses were heavy, but the ore would pay for all.
He grew thin and rather haggard. Sleeping in the snow one night with half-dried moccasins, he found his foot frozen when he awoke, and the dead part galled. He limped as he went about the mine, and soon afterwards his hand was nipped by a machine and the wound would not heal. He held on, however; meeting his troubles cheerfully and encouraging his men, and the ore-dump began to grow.
His party was not alone, for soon after he got to work three men drove in their stakes behind his block of claims. They went south to file their records, and returning with several more, began the development the law required. Others followed, and the neighborhood was soon dotted with tents and discovery posts; but, for the most part, the men were satisfied with blasting a few holes in the surface of their claims. One or two experienced miners talked to Thirlwell, and agreeing that the ore could only be reached from the ground owned by Agatha's Company, abandoned their holdings and went back; the others waited for a time, and then returned, disappointed, when their food was exhausted.
The first arrivals, however, stayed and had opened two or three rude shafts before the frost began. Then, instead of leaving, as Thirlwell expected, they brought up provisions and built a log shack. It was plain that they meant to hold the claims and Thirlwell was puzzled, because he saw the men were miners and thought they knew their labor was thrown away. He imagined that Stormont had sent them, but could not see the latter's object. The fellow could hardly expect to reach the inclined vein except at a depth that would make it extremely expensive to work, and Thirlwell had improved his own and the adjoining claims enough to protect them legally from encroachment. Still Stormont was unscrupulous and it was possible he had some cunning plan for embarrassing the company. Thirlwell felt disturbed, but he had no grounds for interfering with the men, and although their relations were rather strained when they met, he left them alone.
Winter was nearly over when, one evening, George and Scott arrived at the Farnam homestead where Agatha was a guest. The house was centrally heated, and when the party gathered in Mrs. Farnam's pretty, warm room, Agatha wondered what Thirlwell was doing in the frozen North. Farnam had invested some money in the mine, and Agatha knew George had come to talk about the company's business.
"Things are not going well with us," he said presently. "Our money's nearly spent and Thirlwell has not been able to get out much ore. I think I told you he suspected Stormont sent the men who staked the claims behind our block, and the fellow's now getting on our track. He's been to see Gardner, Leeson, and one or two others."
"It would be awkward if they turned us down," Farnam remarked.
Agatha waited. She knew Gardner and Leeson held a number of the shares, but she did not understand the matter yet.
"Very awkward," George agreed. "I went to Leeson, and although he didn't say much, I reckon Stormont wants to buy his stock. He allowed that he and Gardner were not satisfied about our prospects, and I couldn't give him much ground for holding on. Then I went to Hill, who said he'd got an offer for his stock and meant to sell, but wouldn't name the buyer. I suspected Stormont again, but we won't know until we get the transfer form."
"One could head him off by bidding higher for the shares," Farnam suggested. "Still I suppose it's impossible. Anyhow, I have no more money."
"That applies to all of us," George said dryly.
Agatha smiled, for the situation had a touch of ironical humor. In a sense, she was rich, but she was forced to practise stern economy and had not the means to defend her wealth.
"But what is Stormont's plan?" she asked.
"I don't know," said George. "That's the worst, because it's a sure thing he has a plan. When he's ready he'll get after us."
"Not altogether, I think," Scott replied. "He has a pick on you and Thirlwell, but it's money he wants. If he could let you down when he got the money, it would, no doubt, add to his satisfaction."
"If he bought up a large number of the shares, it would give him a dangerous power," Agatha said thoughtfully. "Besides, he might persuade some of the other people to vote with him. It's unlucky we issued so many shares, although, of course, we needed the capital."
Scott made a sign of agreement. "We kept a block large enough to give us control unless nearly all the other holders voted against us, which we could not expect. The trouble is, that our difficulties at the mine have made them anxious. Stormont has probably worked on this, but it's hard to see how he means to use the people."
For some time they puzzled about Stormont's object, but could not find a clue, and by and by Agatha said, "You must write to Mr. Thirlwell."
"Thirlwell's job is to get out the ore, and we're up against things now because he hasn't done as much as we expected," George replied.
Agatha's eyes sparkled. "He has done all that was possible. You must write to him."
"Very well," said George, and began to talk about something else.
* * * * *
A week or two later Stormont bought a large number of shares, but this was all, and the snow was beginning to melt when George got an ominous hint that the other's plans had matured. Stormont telephoned asking if he would meet him and a few of the shareholders at Montreal to talk about an important matter, and George fixed a day a week ahead. Then he went to see Agatha.
"It's lucky Mr. Thirlwell is coming down," she said. "Telegraph for somebody to meet him and tell him to be quick. He must get to Montreal for the meeting."
"I doubt if he can get through in time and don't see what he can do if he comes," George objected.
"Don't argue, but send the telegram. He has always been able to do something when there was a difficulty to be met," Agatha rejoined; and George did as she ordered.
On the day of the meeting she joined George and Scott at Montreal and felt a pang of disappointment when she found Thirlwell had not arrived.
"Your messenger couldn't have gone far, and a number of things may have delayed Thirlwell, but I know he'll come," she said to George, who smiled.
"He'll come if it's possible; he's an obstinate fellow," Scott agreed. "There's a train just before the meeting. Will you go to the station?"
"Yes," said Agatha. "I feel he will be there."
"Then you'll hold us up; that train is often late," George grumbled.
"Have you got a hint about what Stormont wants?" Agatha asked Scott.
"Not yet, but we'll know soon. I expect George told you Stormont has floated a company to work the claims his men staked behind our block."
They had some hours to wait because the meeting was in the afternoon, and Agatha found the shops strangely unattractive; moreover, she did not know if it would be prudent to buy the things she wanted. In the afternoon she went to the Canadian-Pacific Station, and being told the train had left Ottawa late, she sat down in the neighboring square by the Cathedral. She was surprised to find that she was nervous, but this was not altogether because of the money at stake. Thirlwell had not failed her yet and it would be a painful shock if he did so now. She had a half-superstitious feeling that it was important he should come. If he arrived, all would go well; if not—but she refused to follow the thought, and looked at her watch. Only a few minutes had gone since her last glance and she tried to conquer her impatience.
Her heart beat when she stood beside the platform gate as the long train rolled in. The cars were crowded, but she thrilled when Thirlwell jumped down from a vestibule. He looked thin and tired, but smiled when she gave him her hand.
"I'm here," he said. "A little late, but the train was held up by a broken trestle."
"You are always where you are wanted," Agatha replied, with a touch of color in her face. "One trusts people like that."
Thirlwell said he would get a hack in the square, and Agatha studied him as they drove across the city. Sometimes his face was stern, but for the most part, it wore a look of quiet satisfaction, and once or twice his eyes twinkled, as if he were amused by something.
"It's too bad to hurry you off to an important meeting when you're tired," she said.
Thirlwell laughed. "I expect to hold out until the business is finished. In fact, I'm looking forward to meeting Mr. Stormont."
He had made a long and risky journey over a rough trail and across rotten ice, and after George's messenger found him had pushed on as fast as possible through deep, melting snow, but he did not mean to talk about this. By and by he gave Agatha a humorous account of a small accident at the mine, and she followed his lead. She had felt disturbed and anxious, but now he had come she could smile. For all that she was silent when they drove up a shabby street where the company's office was situated at the top of an old building.
The office had two rooms; one very small, where a wheat-broker had a desk and combined the secretary's duties with his regular business. The other was larger, and when George and Scott went in was occupied by Stormont, Gardner, and two or three other gentlemen. George imagined they had come early to arrange their program.
"You are punctual, but I'm sorry I must ask you to wait," he said. "Miss Strange will not be long and wishes to be present when we begin. She holds the largest block of shares."
"Then I suppose Miss Strange must be indulged; but I don't know that her holding is larger than these gentlemen's and mine," Stormont replied with a meaning smile.
George saw he had been given a hint, but he and the others began to talk good-humoredly. All knew that a struggle was coming, but polite amenities were dignified and marked one's confidence. By and by the door opened and Stormont frowned as Thirlwell came in with Agatha.
"We are glad to see Miss Strange, but Mr. Thirlwell owns none of the company's stock," he said.
Thirlwell smiled, in a rather curious way, but said nothing and Agatha replied: "Mr. Thirlwell is the manager; I asked him to come."
"Then I take back my objection," Stormont said with a bow. "I asked you and Mr. Strange to meet us so that we could talk informally about some business. Although we must call a shareholders' meeting if my suggestions are approved, we hold enough stock between us to force through any decision at which we arrive."
"To begin with, you had better state whose votes you command," said George.
When Stormont gave the names the secretary opened the register and then nodded. "If all who are present and the others Mr. Stormont mentions agree, it would give a larger majority than our constitution requires."
"We'll take it for granted that the gentlemen would vote as Mr. Stormont directs," said George, who looked disturbed. "We wait his proposition."
"My friends and I are dissatisfied with the way things are going. No ore has been smelted; and, so far as we can learn, the quantity in the dump is small. We are working on an unprofitable scale, and need more labor and better and more expensive machines. In short, we need more money. I have no doubt Mr. Thirlwell will admit this."
"A larger capital would be an advantage," Thirlwell assented dryly.
"We can't extend our capital," George objected. "It was hard work to get the stock we have issued taken up."
"I can show you how the difficulty can be got over," Stormont resumed. "You know I floated the Adventurers Company to work the back blocks, and as the claims haven't come up to our expectations, we have more money than we can use, while the Agatha Company has not enough. Well, I propose that you combine with us on the terms I've drafted. If you don't approve them all, we'll meet you where we can."
He gave George a paper, but Agatha interposed: "You can take it for granted that we will not make the combine."
Stormont smiled, deprecatingly. "I'm afraid you cannot help yourselves, Miss Strange."
Agatha looked at George, whose face got red.
"I can understand the Adventurers being anxious to take us in. Your property is worthless, Mr. Stormont, and ours is rich."
"We're willing to pay."
George studied the paper and then threw it down. "You're willing to pay about a quarter of what the mine is worth! After reading that document, it's obvious that you mean to put the screw to us; but we'll fight."
Scott, who glanced at the draft of agreement, nodded, but Stormont said: "You might make some trouble, but must be beaten."
"Why?" Agatha asked.
"I think your brother knows. Each share in your company carries a vote; I hold a large block, and the gentlemen who have promised to support me hold more. If you force us to call a meeting, we will count you out."
"There are some shares in reserve," said Agatha, whose eyes sparkled defiantly.
Stormont smiled. "If you have some rich friends, you might, of course, persuade them to buy the shares and vote for you; but you can't sell them in the ordinary way. I imagine Mr. Strange has tried!"
Agatha saw that George had tried when she glanced at his disturbed face. Then she turned to Thirlwell and noted, with surprise, that he looked amused. She could see nothing in the way matters were going that warranted his humorous twinkle. It looked as if Stormont would win, and she felt that she was being robbed to satisfy his greed; but the mine meant more to her than the money she had expected to get. She had resolved to make it famous as a monument to her father; its success was to prove that his life had not Been wasted in empty dreams.
"Investors are a suspicious lot," Stormont went on. "They don't like to lose their money, and you must admit that there's not much to encourage buyers of your shares to run the risk. The ore is rich, but we are up against obstacles that your manager is obviously unable to remove. In fact, my scheme ought to work out for your benefit."
The sneer at Thirlwell roused Agatha. "The obstacles will not vanish if you get control, and you cannot find a manager who will do as well. Then the scheme will not benefit me; it is meant to benefit nobody but you. If your friends are foolish enough to support it, you will find a way of overreaching them."
George frowned. Agatha's indignation was warranted, but this was not the line to take at a business meeting. Then Gardner looked up, rather sharply, as if the girl's remarks had excited some suspicion that was already in his mind.
"I think you must see that any advantage Mr. Stormont gains will be shared by the rest."
"If you believe this, you are very dull," Agatha replied.
"Anyhow, you'll admit that we are short of money and don't know where to get it, while to combine with the Adventurers would supply the needed capital."
"Yes," said Agatha. "But Mr. Stormont wants to take your shares for much less than they are worth. You can let him have yours, if you like; he shall not get mine!"
"Then you must try to sell them, and you'll find it difficult," Leeson interposed. "If you force us to call a meeting, we can carry our scheme."
"You are all against me!" Agatha exclaimed, looking at the others. "You have let Mr. Stormont cajole you!"
"I don't know that we have been cajoled," Leeson answered with a doubtful smile. "In a sense, however, we are against you. We are business men and must protect our interests in the best way we can."
"Trusting Mr. Stormont is not the best way," Agatha rejoined, without regarding Scott's amusement and George's frown.
"I'm afraid we must call the meeting," Gardner broke in. "We hoped you would have met us, Miss Strange, because you are bound to lose when we take a formal vote."
Agatha felt desperate and glanced at Thirlwell; if he could do nothing else, he could sympathize. He gave her an encouraging smile as he got up, for he knew his time had come and had been silent because he wanted to let Stormont reveal his plans. The latter, however, obviously meant to leave the argument to his dupes. Agatha, noting his confidence, remembered that when they reached the office he had asked her to wait a few minutes while he talked to the secretary.
"Mr. Stormont made two rash statements," he said. "He told us the reserved shares could not be sold, and that he could count upon a majority."
"I object to Mr. Thirlwell's speaking," Stormont said with some alarm. "We allowed him to stay at Miss Strange's request, but the manager has no vote."
"I imagine Mr. Stormont doesn't know I am a shareholder. Perhaps the secretary will enlighten him."
Stormont started, Scott smiled, and George looked surprised. The others waited anxiously.
"Mr. Thirlwell holds a quantity of our stock."
"How much?" Stormont asked, and when the secretary told him, struggled to preserve his calm.
"The reserved block is sold," Thirlwell resumed. "I bought the shares half an hour since for myself and a friend of mine." He paused and put a stamped document on the table. "Here's my authority to use the proxy votes."
He sat down and Scott remarked: "I think Mr. Stormont will admit that the majority has, so to speak, changed sides!"
Stormont examined the register, and then stood by his chair with his fist clenched. He said nothing, his supporters looked embarrassed, and Agatha saw that Thirlwell had saved the situation. Her heart beat with confused emotion; she had known he would not fail her.
"Well," said George, rather dryly, "do you still demand a meeting?"
"Certainly not," said Gardner with frank relief, and the others murmured agreement. Then he turned to Agatha: "I'd like you to understand that we took the line we did because it seemed the only plan. Now, however, there's no necessity for making the combine."
Stormont gave him a savage look. "This means that you and the others turn me down?"
"It means that we want to save our money," Gardner replied, and Stormont, who said nothing, walked out of the room.
His friends seemed relieved when he left and began to talk to Agatha and George in apologetic tones. One or two, however, looked thoughtful, and presently Gardner said: "Mr. Thirlwell has removed the obstacle that bothered us most and I mean to keep my stock, although I expect it will be some time before I get a dividend."
"Not as long as you think!" Thirlwell remarked.
"Then you have something to tell us?" said another.
"Not yet; I'll make a full report at the shareholders' meeting. In the meantime, do you think Stormont will sell out?"
"It's possible," said Gardner. "He wanted control. We knew that, but backed him because it seemed the safest plan. I guess he knows he's beaten."
"Then if he offers you his stock, you had better buy," said Thirlwell, smiling.
Gardner looked hard at him, and nodded. "I can take a hint. What you say goes."
* * * * *
After this the party broke up and Scott gently pushed George out when he saw that Agatha was waiting while Thirlwell picked up some papers he had got from the secretary. When the others had gone, she gave him her hand and her face flushed.
"I wonder whether you know how much you have helped?"
Thirlwell kept her hand. "I got some satisfaction from beating your antagonist."
"But you wanted to help me?"
"I did," said Thirlwell, with a steady look. "I was anxious to do something that would make you happy."
Agatha turned her head. "Yet you once refused; the morning after we found the lode—"
"Ah," said Thirlwell, "I fought a pretty hard battle then! But, you see, I was a poor engineer, and you—"
She looked up with a smile and blushed. "Do you think I didn't know? But you were foolish; ridiculously stupid!"
Thirlwell took her other hand. "Perhaps I was, but I thought I was right. Things, however, are different now—"
He drew her to him, but she resisted. "Wait! If things had not been different, would your resolution have held out?"
"No," said Thirlwell, "I'm afraid not; I'm not as strong as I imagined."
"Oh!" she said, "perhaps that's the nicest thing I have heard you say! But you really didn't often try to be very nice."
"I was afraid I might say too much if I began."
"No!" she protested, as his grasp got firmer. "There's something else! How long have you really—"
"How long have I wanted you? Well, I think I began to feel the need a day or two after I met you at the summer hotel."
Agatha blushed, but smiled with shining eyes.
"Then if the need hasn't gone, you can take me."
Thirlwell said nothing, but took her in his arms.