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A MILLIONAIRE OF ROUGH-AND-READY (chapter6)

2006-09-07 20:08

    CHAPTER VI

    When Alvin Mulrady reentered his own house, he no longer noticed its loneliness. Whether the events of the last few hours had driven it from his mind, or whether his late reflections had repeopled it with his family under pleasanter auspices, it would be difficult to determine. Destitute as he was of imagination, and matter-of-fact in his judgments, he realized his new situation as calmly as he would have considered any business proposition. While he was decided to act upon his moral convictions purely, he was prepared to submit the facts of Slinn's claim to the usual patient and laborious investigation of his practical mind. It was the least he could do to justify the ready and almost superstitious assent he had given to Slinn's story.

    When he had made a few memoranda at his desk by the growing light, he again took the key of the attic, and ascended to the loft that held the tangible memories of his past life. If he was still under the influence of his reflections, it was with very different sensations that he now regarded them. Was it possible that these ashes might be warmed again, and these scattered embers rekindled? His practical sense said No! whatever his wish might have been. A sudden chill came over him; he began to realize the terrible change that was probable, more by the impossibility of his accepting the old order of things than by his voluntarily abandoning the new. His wife and children would never submit. They would go away from this place, far away, where no reminiscence of either former wealth or former poverty could obtrude itself upon them. Mamie——his Mamie-should never go back to the cabin, since desecrated by Slinn's daughters, and take their places. No! Why should she?—— because of the half-sick, half-crazy dreams of an old vindictive man?

    He stopped suddenly. In moodily turning over a heap of mining clothing, blankets, and india-rubber boots, he had come upon an old pickaxe——the one he had found in the shaft; the one he had carefully preserved for a year, and then forgotten! Why had he not remembered it before? He was frightened, not only at this sudden resurrection of the proof he was seeking, but at his own fateful forgetfulness. Why had he never thought of this when Slinn was speaking? A sense of shame, as if he had voluntarily withheld it from the wronged man, swept over him. He was turning away, when he was again startled.

    This time it was by a voice from below——a voice calling him—— Slinn's voice. How had the crippled man got here so soon, and what did he want? He hurriedly laid aside the pick, which, in his first impulse, he had taken to the door of the loft with him, and descended the stairs. The old man was standing at the door of his office awaiting him.

    As Mulrady approached, he trembled violently, and clung to the doorpost for support.

    "I had to come over, Mulrady," he said, in a choked voice; "I could stand it there no longer. I've come to beg you to forget all that I have said; to drive all thought of what passed between us last night out of your head and mine forever! I've come to ask you to swear with me that neither of us will ever speak of this again forever. It is not worth the happiness I have had in your friendship for the last half-year; it is not worth the agony I have suffered in its loss in the last half-hour."

    Mulrady grasped his outstretched hand. "P'raps," he said, gravely, "there mayn't be any use for another word, if you can answer one now. Come with me. No matter," he added, as Slinn moved with difficulty; "I will help you."

    He half supported, half lifted the paralyzed man up the three flights of stairs, and opened the door of the loft. The pick was leaning against the wall, where he had left it. "Look around, and see if you recognize anything."

    The old man's eyes fell upon the implement in a half-frightened way, and then lifted themselves interrogatively to Mulrady's face.

    "Do you know that pick?"

    Slinn raised it in his trembling hands. "I think I do; and yet——"

    "Slinn! is it yours?"

    "No," he said hurriedly.

    "Then what makes you think you know it?"

    "It has a short handle like one I've seen." "And is isn't yours?"

    "No. The handle of mine was broken and spliced. I was too poor to buy a new one."

    "Then you say that this pick which I found in my shaft is not yours?"

    "Yes."

    "Slinn!"

    The old man passed his hand across his forehead, looked at Mulrady, and dropped his eyes. "It is not mine," he said simply.

    "That will do," said Mulrady, gravely.

    "And you will not speak of this again?" said the old man, timidly.

    "I promise you——not until I have some more evidence."

    He kept his word, but not before he had extorted from Slinn as full a description of Masters as his imperfect memory and still more imperfect knowledge of his former neighbor could furnish. He placed this, with a large sum of money and the promise of a still larger reward, in the hands of a trustworthy agent. When this was done he resumed his old relations with Slinn, with the exception that the domestic letters of Mrs. Mulrady and Mamie were no longer a subject of comment, and their bills no longer passed through his private secretary's hands.

    Three months passed; the rainy season had ceased, the hillsides around Mulrady's shaft were bridal-like with flowers; indeed, there were rumors of an approaching fashionable marriage in the air, and vague hints in the "Record" that the presence of a distinguished capitalist might soon be required abroad. The face of that distinguished man did not, however, reflect the gayety of nature nor the anticipation of happiness; on the contrary, for the past few weeks, he had appeared disturbed and anxious, and that rude tranquillity which had characterized him was wanting. People shook their heads; a few suggested speculations; all agreed on extravagance.

    One morning, after office hours, Slinn, who had been watching the careworn face of his employer, suddenly rose and limped to his side.

    "We promised each other," he said, in a voice trembling with emotion; "never to allude to our talk of Christmas Eve again unless we had other proofs of what I told you then. We have none; I don't believe we'll ever have any more. I don't care if we ever do, and I break that promise now

    because I cannot bear to see you unhappy and know that this is the cause."

    Mulrady made a motion of deprecation, but the old man continued-

    "You are unhappy, Alvin Mulrady. You are unhappy because you want to give your daughter a dowry of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and you will not use the fortune that you think may be mine."

    "Who's been talking about a dowry?" asked Mulrady, with an angry flush.

    "Don Caesar Alvarado told my daughter."

    "Then that is why he has thrown off on me since he returned," said Mulrady, with sudden small malevolence, "just that he might unload his gossip because Mamie wouldn't have him. The old woman was right in warnin' me agin him."

    The outburst was so unlike him, and so dwarfed his large though common nature with its littleness, that it was easy to detect its feminine origin, although it filled Slinn with vague alarm.

    "Never mind him," said the old man, hastily; "what I wanted to say now is that I abandon everything to you and yours. There are no proofs; there never will be any more than what we know, than what we have tested and found wanting. I swear to you that, except to show you that I have not lied and am not crazy, I would destroy them on their way to your hands. Keep the money, and spend it as you will. Make your daughter happy, and, through her, yourself. You have made me happy through your liberality; don't make me suffer through your privation."

    "I tell you what, old man," said Mulrady, rising to his feet, with an awkward mingling of frankness and shame in his manner and accent, "I should like to pay that money for Mamie, and let her be a princess, if it would make her happy. I should like to shut the lantern jaws of that Don Caesar, who'd be too glad if anything happened to break off Mamie's match. But I shouldn't touch that capital——unless you'd lend it to me. If you'll take a note from me, payable if the property ever becomes yours, I'd thank you. A mortgage on the old house and garden, and the lands I bought of Don Caesar, outside the mine, will screen you."

    "If that pleases you," said the old man, with a smile, "have your way;and if I tear up the note, it does not concern you."

    It did please the distinguished capitalist of Rough-and-Ready; for the next few days his face wore a brightened expression, and he seemed to have recovered his old tranquillity. There was, in fact, a slight touch of consequence in his manner, the first ostentation he had ever indulged in, when he was informed one morning at his private office that Don Caesar Alvarado was in the counting-house, desiring a few moments' conference. "Tell him to come in," said Mulrady, shortly. The door opened upon Don Caesar——erect, sallow, and grave. Mulrady had not seen him since his return from Europe, and even his inexperienced eyes were struck with the undeniable ease and grace with which the young Spanish-American had assimilated the style and fashion of an older civilization. It seemed rather as if he had returned to a familiar condition than adopted a new one.

    "Take a cheer," said Mulrady.

    The young man looked at Slinn with quietly persistent significance.

    "You can talk all the same," said Mulrady, accepting the significance. "He's my private secretary."

    "It seems that for that reason we might choose another moment for our conversation," returned Don Caesar, haughtily. "Do I understand you cannot see me now?"

    Mulrady hesitated, he had always revered and recognized a certain social superiority in Don Ramon Alvarado; somehow his son——a young man of half his age, and once a possible son-in-law——appeared to claim that recognition also. He rose, without a word, and preceded Don Caesar up-stairs into the drawing-room. The alien portrait on the wall seemed to evidently take sides with Don Caesar, as against the common intruder, Mulrady.

    "I hoped the Senora Mulrady might have saved me this interview," said the young man, stiffly; "or at least have given you some intimation of the reason why I seek it. As you just now proposed my talking to you in the presence of the unfortunate Senor Esslinn himself, it appears she has not."

    "I don't know what you're driving at, or what Mrs. Mulrady's got to do with Slinn or you," said Mulrady, in angry uneasiness. "Do I understand," said Don Caesar, sternly, "that Senora Mulrady has not told you that I entrusted to her an important letter, belonging to Senor Esslinn, which I had the honor to discover in the wood six months ago, and which she said she would refer to you?"

    "Letter?" echoed Mulrady, slowly; "my wife had a letter of Slinn's?"

    Don Caesar regarded the millionaire attentively. "It is as I feared," he said, gravely. "You do not know or you would not have remained silent." He then briefly recounted the story of his finding Slinn's letter, his exhibition of it to the invalid, its disastrous effect upon him, and his innocent discovery of the contents. "I believed myself at that time on the eve of being allied with your family, Senor Mulrady," he said, haughtily; "and when I found myself in the possession of a secret which affected its integrity and good name, I did not choose to leave it in the helpless hands of its imbecile owner, or his sillier children, but proposed to trust it to the care of the Senora, that she and you might deal with it as became your honor and mine. I followed her to Paris, and gave her the letter there. She affected to laugh at any pretension of the writer, or any claim he might have on your bounty; but she kept the letter, and, I fear, destroyed it. You will understand, Senor Mulrady, that when I found that my attentions were no longer agreeable to your daughter, I had no longer the right to speak to you on the subject, nor could I, without misapprehension, force her to return it. I should have still kept the secret to myself, if I had not since my return here made the nearer acquaintance of Senor Esslinn's daughters. I cannot present myself at his house, as a suitor for the hand of the Senorita Vashti, until I have asked his absolution for my complicity in the wrong that has been done to him. I cannot, as a caballero, do that without your permission. It is for that purpose I am here."

    It needed only this last blow to complete the humiliation that whitened Mulrady's face. But his eye was none the less clear and his voice none the less steady as he turned to Don Caesar.

    "You know perfectly the contents of that letter?"

    "I have kept a copy of it." "Come with me."

    He preceded his visitor down the staircase and back into his private office. Slinn looked up at his employer's face in unrestrained anxiety. Mulrady sat down at his desk, wrote a few hurried lines, and rang a bell.

    A manager appeared from the counting-room.

    "Send that to the bank."

    He wiped his pen as methodically as if he had not at that moment countermanded the order to pay his daughter's dowry, and turned quietly to Slinn.

    "Don Caesar Alvarado has found the letter you wrote your wife on the day you made your strike in the tunnel that is now my shaft. He gave the letter to Mrs. Mulrady; but he has kept a copy."

    Unheeding the frightened gesture of entreaty from Slinn, equally with the unfeigned astonishment of Don Caesar, who was entirely unprepared for this revelation of Mulrady's and Slinn's confidences, he continued, "He has brought the copy with him. I reckon it would be only square for you to compare it with what you remember of the original."

    In obedience to a gesture from Mulrady, Don Caesar mechanically took from his pocket a folded paper, and handed it to the paralytic. But Slinn's trembling fingers could scarcely unfold the paper; and as his eyes fell upon its contents, his convulsive lips could not articulate a word.

    "P'raps I'd better read it for you," said Mulrady, gently. "You kin follow me and stop me when I go wrong."

    He took the paper, and, in dead silence, read as follows:-

    "DEAR WIFE,——I've just struck gold in my tunnel, and you must get ready to come here with the children, at once. It was after six months' hard work; and I'm so weak I . . . It's a fortune for us all. We should be rich even if it were only a branch vein dipping west towards the next tunnel, instead of dipping east, according to my theory——"

    "Stop!" said Slinn, in a voice that shook the room.

    Mulrady looked up.

    "It's wrong, ain't it?" he asked, anxiously; "it should be EAST towards the next tunnel."

    "No! IT'S RIGHT! I am wrong! We're all wrong!"

    Slinn had risen to his feet, erect and inspired. "Don't you see," he almost screamed, with passionate vehemence, "it's MASTERS' ABANDONED TUNNEL your shaft has struck? Not mine! It was Masters' pick you found! I know it now!"

    "And your own tunnel?" said Mulrady, springing to his feet in excitement. "And YOUR strike?"

    "Is still there!"

    The next instant, and before another question could be asked, Slinn had darted from the room. In the exaltation of that supreme discovery he regained the full control of his mind and body. Mulrady and Don Caesar, no less excited, followed him precipitately, and with difficulty kept up with his feverish speed. Their way lay along the base of the hill below Mulrady's shaft, and on a line with Masters' abandoned tunnel. Only once he stopped to snatch a pick from the hand of an astonished Chinaman at work in a ditch, as he still kept on his way, a quarter of a mile beyond the shaft. Here he stopped before a jagged hole in the hillside. Bared to the sky and air, the very openness of its abandonment, its unpropitious position, and distance from the strike in Mulrady's shaft had no doubt preserved its integrity from wayfarer or prospector.

    "You can't go in there alone, and without a light," said Mulrady, laying his hand on the arm of the excited man. "Let me get more help and proper tools."

    "I know every step in the dark as in the daylight," returned Slinn, struggling. "Let me go, while I have yet strength and reason! Stand aside!"

    He broke from them, and the next moment was swallowed up in the yawning blackness. They waited with bated breath until, after a seeming eternity of night and silence, they heard his returning footsteps, and ran forward to meet him. As he was carrying something clasped to his breast, they supported him to the opening. But at the same moment the object of his search and his burden, a misshapen wedge of gold and quartz, dropped with him, and both fell together with equal immobility to the ground. He had still strength to turn his fading eyes to the other millionaire of Rough-and-Ready, who leaned over him.

    "You——see," he gasped, brokenly, "I was not——crazy!"

    No. He was dead!

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