SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE
RICHARD HARDING DAVIS
TO IRENE AND DANA GIBSON
SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE
"It is so good of you to come early," said Mrs. Porter, as Alice Langham entered the drawing-room. "I want to ask a favor of you. I'm sure you won't mind. I would ask one of the debutantes, except that they're always so cross if one puts them next to men they don't know and who can't help them, and so I thought I'd just ask you, you're so good-natured. You don't mind, do you?"
"I mind being called good-natured," said Miss Langham, smiling. "Mind what, Mrs. Porter?" she asked.
"He is a friend of George's," Mrs. Porter explained, vaguely. "He's a cowboy. It seems he was very civil to George when he was out there shooting in New Mexico, or Old Mexico, I don't remember which. He took George to his hut and gave him things to shoot, and all that, and now he is in New York with a letter of introduction. It's just like George. He may be a most impossible sort of man, but, as I said to Mr. Porter, the people I've asked can't complain, because I don't know anything more about him than they do. He called to-day when I was out and left his card and George's letter of introduction, and as a man had failed me for to-night, I just thought I would kill two birds with one stone, and ask him to fill his place, and he's here. And, oh, yes," Mrs. Porter added, "I'm going to put him next to you, do you mind?"
"Unless he wears leather leggings and long spurs I shall mind very much," said Miss Langham.
"Well, that's very nice of you," purred Mrs. Porter, as she moved away. "He may not be so bad, after all; and I'll put Reginald King on your other side, shall I?" she asked, pausing and glancing back.
The look on Miss Langham's face, which had been one of amusement, changed consciously, and she smiled with polite acquiescence.
"As you please, Mrs. Porter," she answered. She raised her eyebrows slightly. "I am, as the politicians say, 'in the hands of my friends.'"
"Entirely too much in the hands of my friends," she repeated, as she turned away. This was the twelfth time during that same winter that she and Mr. King had been placed next to one another at dinner, and it had passed beyond the point when she could say that it did not matter what people thought as long as she and he understood. It had now reached that stage when she was not quite sure that she understood either him or herself. They had known each other for a very long time; too long, she sometimes thought, for them ever to grow to know each other any better. But there was always the chance that he had another side, one that had not disclosed itself, and which she could not discover in the strict social environment in which they both lived. And she was the surer of this because she had once seen him when he did not know that she was near, and he had been so different that it had puzzled her and made her wonder if she knew the real Reggie King at all.
It was at a dance at a studio, and some French pantomimists gave a little play. When it was over, King sat in the corner talking to one of the Frenchwomen, and while he waited on her he was laughing at her and at her efforts to speak English. He was telling her how to say certain phrases and not telling her correctly, and she suspected this and was accusing him of it, and they were rhapsodizing and exclaiming over certain delightful places and dishes of which they both knew in Paris with the enthusiasm of two children. Miss Langham saw him off his guard for the first time and instead of a somewhat bored and clever man of the world, he appeared as sincere and interested as a boy.
When he joined her, later, the same evening, he was as entertaining as usual, and as polite and attentive as he had been to the Frenchwoman, but he was not greatly interested, and his laugh was modulated and not spontaneous. She had wondered that night, and frequently since then, if, in the event of his asking her to marry him, which was possible, and of her accepting him, which was also possible, whether she would find him, in the closer knowledge of married life, as keen and lighthearted with her as he had been with the French dancer. If he would but treat her more like a comrade and equal, and less like a prime minister conferring with his queen! She wanted something more intimate than the deference that he showed her, and she did not like his taking it as an accepted fact that she was as worldly-wise as himself, even though it were true.
She was a woman and wanted to be loved, in spite of the fact that she had been loved by many men—at least it was so supposed—and had rejected them.
Each had offered her position, or had wanted her because she was fitted to match his own great state, or because he was ambitious, or because she was rich. The man who could love her as she once believed men could love, and who could give her something else besides approval of her beauty and her mind, had not disclosed himself. She had begun to think that he never would, that he did not exist, that he was an imagination of the playhouse and the novel. The men whom she knew were careful to show her that they appreciated how distinguished was her position, and how inaccessible she was to them. They seemed to think that by so humbling themselves, and by emphasizing her position they pleased her best, when it was what she wanted them to forget. Each of them would draw away backward, bowing and protesting that he was unworthy to raise his eyes to such a prize, but that if she would only stoop to him, how happy his life would be. Sometimes they meant it sincerely; sometimes they were gentlemanly adventurers of title, from whom it was a business proposition, and in either case she turned restlessly away and asked herself how long it would be before the man would come who would pick her up on his saddle and gallop off with her, with his arm around her waist and his horse's hoofs clattering beneath them, and echoing the tumult in their hearts.
She had known too many great people in the world to feel impressed with her own position at home in America; but she sometimes compared herself to the Queen in "In a Balcony," and repeated to herself, with mock seriousness:—
"And you the marble statue all the time They praise and point at as preferred to life, Yet leave for the first breathing woman's cheek, First dancer's, gypsy's or street balladine's!"
And if it were true, she asked herself, that the man she had imagined was only an ideal and an illusion, was not King the best of the others, the unideal and ever-present others? Every one else seemed to think so. The society they knew put them constantly together and approved. Her people approved. Her own mind approved, and as her heart was not apparently ever to be considered, who could say that it did not approve as well? He was certainly a very charming fellow, a manly, clever companion, and one who bore about him the evidences of distinction and thorough breeding. As far as family went, the Kings were as old as a young country could expect, and Reggie King was, moreover, in spite of his wealth, a man of action and ability. His yacht journeyed from continent to continent, and not merely up the Sound to Newport, and he was as well known and welcome to the consuls along the coasts of Africa and South America as he was at Cowes or Nice. His books of voyages were recognized by geographical societies and other serious bodies, who had given him permission to put long disarrangements of the alphabet after his name. She liked him because she had grown to be at home with him, because it was good to know that there was some one who would not misunderstand her, and who, should she so indulge herself, would not take advantage of any appeal she might make to his sympathy, who would always be sure to do the tactful thing and the courteous thing, and who, while he might never do a great thing, could not do an unkind one.
Miss Langham had entered the Porters' drawing-room after the greater number of the guests had arrived, and she turned from her hostess to listen to an old gentleman with a passion for golf, a passion in which he had for a long time been endeavoring to interest her. She answered him and his enthusiasm in kind, and with as much apparent interest as she would have shown in a matter of state. It was her principle to be all things to all men, whether they were great artists, great diplomats, or great bores. If a man had been pleading with her to leave the conservatory and run away with him, and another had come up innocently and announced that it was his dance, she would have said: "Oh, is it?" with as much apparent delight as though his coming had been the one bright hope in her life.
She was growing enthusiastic over the delights of golf and unconsciously making a very beautiful picture of herself in her interest and forced vivacity, when she became conscious for the first time of a strange young man who was standing alone before the fireplace looking at her, and frankly listening to all the nonsense she was talking. She guessed that he had been listening for some time, and she also saw, before he turned his eyes quickly away, that he was distinctly amused. Miss Langham stopped gesticulating and lowered her voice, but continued to keep her eyes on the face of the stranger, whose own eyes were wandering around the room, to give her, so she guessed, the idea that he had not been listening, but that she had caught him at it in the moment he had first looked at her. He was a tall, broad-shouldered youth, with a handsome face, tanned and dyed, either by the sun or by exposure to the wind, to a deep ruddy brown, which contrasted strangely with his yellow hair and mustache, and with the pallor of the other faces about him. He was a stranger apparently to every one present, and his bearing suggested, in consequence, that ease of manner which comes to a person who is not only sure of himself, but who has no knowledge of the claims and pretensions to social distinction of those about him. His most attractive feature was his eyes, which seemed to observe all that was going on, not only what was on the surface, but beneath the surface, and that not rudely or covertly but with the frank, quick look of the trained observer. Miss Langham found it an interesting face to watch, and she did not look away from it. She was acquainted with every one else in the room, and hence she knew this must be the cowboy of whom Mrs. Porter had spoken, and she wondered how any one who had lived the rough life of the West could still retain the look when in formal clothes of one who was in the habit of doing informal things in them.
Mrs. Porter presented her cowboy simply as "Mr. Clay, of whom I spoke to you," with a significant raising of the eyebrows, and the cowboy made way for King, who took Miss Langham in. He looked frankly pleased, however, when he found himself next to her again, but did not take advantage of it throughout the first part of the dinner, during which time he talked to the young married woman on his right, and Miss Langham and King continued where they had left off at their last meeting. They knew each other well enough to joke of the way in which they were thrown into each other's society, and, as she said, they tried to make the best of it. But while she spoke, Miss Langham was continually conscious of the presence of her neighbor, who piqued her interest and her curiosity in different ways. He seemed to be at his ease, and yet from the manner in which he glanced up and down the table and listened to snatches of talk on either side of him he had the appearance of one to whom it was all new, and who was seeing it for the first time.
There was a jolly group at one end of the long table, and they wished to emphasize the fact by laughing a little more hysterically at their remarks than the humor of those witticisms seemed to justify. A daughter-in-law of Mrs. Porter was their leader in this, and at one point she stopped in the middle of a story and waving her hand at the double row of faces turned in her direction, which had been attracted by the loudness of her voice, cried, gayly, "Don't listen. This is for private circulation. It is not a jeune-fille story." The debutantes at the table continued talking again in steady, even tones, as though they had not heard the remark or the first of the story, and the men next to them appeared equally unconscious. But the cowboy, Miss Langham noted out of the corner of her eye, after a look of polite surprise, beamed with amusement and continued to stare up and down the table as though he had discovered a new trait in a peculiar and interesting animal. For some reason, she could not tell why, she felt annoyed with herself and with her friends, and resented the attitude which the new-comer assumed toward them.
"Mrs. Porter tells me that you know her son George?" she said. He did not answer her at once, but bowed his head in assent, with a look of interrogation, as though, so it seemed to her, he had expected her, when she did speak, to say something less conventional.
"Yes," he replied, after a pause, "he joined us at Ayutla. It was the terminus of the Jalisco and Mexican Railroad then. He came out over the road and went in from there with an outfit after mountain lions. I believe he had very good sport."
"That is a very wonderful road, I am told," said King, bending forward and introducing himself into the conversation with a nod of the head toward Clay; "quite a remarkable feat of engineering."
"It will open up the country, I believe," assented the other, indifferently.
"I know something of it," continued King, "because I met the men who were putting it through at Pariqua, when we touched there in the yacht. They shipped most of their plant to that port, and we saw a good deal of them. They were a very jolly lot, and they gave me a most interesting account of their work and its difficulties."
Clay was looking at the other closely, as though he was trying to find something back of what he was saying, but as his glance seemed only to embarrass King he smiled freely again in assent, and gave him his full attention.
"There are no men to-day, Miss Langham," King exclaimed, suddenly, turning toward her, "to my mind, who lead as picturesque lives as do civil engineers. And there are no men whose work is as little appreciated."
"Really?" said Miss Langham, encouragingly.
"Now those men I met," continued King, settling himself with his side to the table, "were all young fellows of thirty or thereabouts, but they were leading the lives of pioneers and martyrs—at least that's what I'd call it. They were marching through an almost unknown part of Mexico, fighting Nature at every step and carrying civilization with them. They were doing better work than soldiers, because soldiers destroy things, and these chaps were creating, and making the way straight. They had no banners either, nor brass bands. They fought mountains and rivers, and they were attacked on every side by fever and the lack of food and severe exposure. They had to sit down around a camp-fire at night and calculate whether they were to tunnel a mountain, or turn the bed of a river or bridge it. And they knew all the time that whatever they decided to do out there in the wilderness meant thousands of dollars to the stockholders somewhere up in God's country, who would some day hold them to account for them. They dragged their chains through miles and miles of jungle, and over flat alkali beds and cactus, and they reared bridges across roaring canons. We know nothing about them and we care less. When their work is done we ride over the road in an observation-car and look down thousands and thousands of feet into the depths they have bridged, and we never give them a thought. They are the bravest soldiers of the present day, and they are the least recognized. I have forgotten their names, and you never heard them. But it seems to me the civil engineer, for all that, is the chief civilizer of our century."
Miss Langham was looking ahead of her with her eyes half-closed, as though she were going over in her mind the situation King had described.
"I never thought of that," she said. "It sounds very fine. As you say, the reward is so inglorious. But that is what makes it fine."
The cowboy was looking down at the table and pulling at a flower in the centre-piece. He had ceased to smile. Miss Langham turned on him somewhat sharply, resenting his silence, and said, with a slight challenge in her voice:—
"Do you agree, Mr. Clay," she asked, "or do you prefer the chocolate-cream soldiers, in red coats and gold lace?"
"Oh, I don't know," the young man answered, with some slight hesitation. "It's a trade for each of them. The engineer's work is all the more absorbing, I imagine, when the difficulties are greatest. He has the fun of overcoming them."
"You see nothing in it then," she asked, "but a source of amusement?"
"Oh, yes, a good deal more," he replied. "A livelihood, for one thing. I—I have been an engineer all my life. I built that road Mr. King is talking about."
An hour later, when Mrs. Porter made the move to go, Miss Langham rose with a protesting sigh. "I am so sorry," she said, "it has been most interesting. I never met two men who had visited so many inaccessible places and come out whole. You have quite inspired Mr. King, he was never so amusing. But I should like to hear the end of that adventure; won't you tell it to me in the other room?"
Clay bowed. "If I haven't thought of something more interesting in the meantime," he said.
"What I can't understand," said King, as he moved up into Miss Langham's place, "is how you had time to learn so much of the rest of the world. You don't act like a man who had spent his life in the brush."
"How do you mean?" asked Clay, smiling—"that I don't use the wrong forks?"
"No," laughed King, "but you told us that this was your first visit East, and yet you're talking about England and Vienna and Voisin's. How is it you've been there, while you have never been in New York?"
"Well, that's partly due to accident and partly to design," Clay answered. "You see I've worked for English and German and French companies, as well as for those in the States, and I go abroad to make reports and to receive instructions. And then I'm what you call a self-made man; that is, I've never been to college. I've always had to educate myself, and whenever I did get a holiday it seemed to me that I ought to put it to the best advantage, and to spend it where civilization was the furthest advanced—advanced, at least, in years. When I settle down and become an expert, and demand large sums for just looking at the work other fellows have done, then I hope to live in New York, but until then I go where the art galleries are biggest and where they have got the science of enjoying themselves down to the very finest point. I have enough rough work eight months of the year to make me appreciate that. So whenever I get a few months to myself I take the Royal Mail to London, and from there to Paris or Vienna. I think I like Vienna the best. The directors are generally important people in their own cities, and they ask one about, and so, though I hope I am a good American, it happens that I've more friends on the Continent than in the United States."
"And how does this strike you?" asked King, with a movement of his shoulder toward the men about the dismantled table.
"Oh, I don't know," laughed Clay. "You've lived abroad yourself; how does it strike you?"
Clay was the first man to enter the drawing-room. He walked directly away from the others and over to Miss Langham, and, taking her fan out of her hands as though to assure himself of some hold upon her, seated himself with his back to every one else.
"You have come to finish that story?" she said, smiling.
Miss Langham was a careful young person, and would not have encouraged a man she knew even as well as she knew King, to talk to her through dinner, and after it as well. She fully recognized that because she was conspicuous certain innocent pleasures were denied her which other girls could enjoy without attracting attention or comment. But Clay interested her beyond her usual self, and the look in his eyes was a tribute which she had no wish to put away from her.
"I've thought of something more interesting to talk about," said Clay. "I'm going to talk about you. You see I've known you a long time."
"Since eight o'clock?" asked Miss Langham.
"Oh, no, since your coming out, four years ago."
"It's not polite to remember so far back," she said. "Were you one of those who assisted at that important function? There were so many there I don't remember."
"No, I only read about it. I remember it very well; I had ridden over twelve miles for the mail that day, and I stopped half-way back to the ranch and camped out in the shade of a rock and read all the papers and magazines through at one sitting, until the sun went down and I couldn't see the print. One of the papers had an account of your coming out in it, and a picture of you, and I wrote East to the photographer for the original. It knocked about the West for three months and then reached me at Laredo, on the border between Texas and Mexico, and I have had it with me ever since."
Miss Langham looked at Clay for a moment in silent dismay and with a perplexed smile.
"Where is it now?" she asked at last.
"In my trunk at the hotel."
"Oh," she said, slowly. She was still in doubt as to how to treat this act of unconventionality. "Not in your watch?" she said, to cover up the pause. "That would have been more in keeping with the rest of the story."
The young man smiled grimly, and pulling out his watch pried back the lid and turned it to her so that she could see a photograph inside. The face in the watch was that of a young girl in the dress of a fashion of several years ago. It was a lovely, frank face, looking out of the picture into the world kindly and questioningly, and without fear.
"Was I once like that?" she said, lightly. "Well, go on."
"Well," he said, with a little sigh of relief, "I became greatly interested in Miss Alice Langham, and in her comings out and goings in, and in her gowns. Thanks to our having a press in the States that makes a specialty of personalities, I was able to follow you pretty closely, for, wherever I go, I have my papers sent after me. I can get along without a compass or a medicine-chest, but I can't do without the newspapers and the magazines. There was a time when I thought you were going to marry that Austrian chap, and I didn't approve of that. I knew things about him in Vienna. And then I read of your engagement to others—well—several others; some of them I thought worthy, and others not. Once I even thought of writing you about it, and once I saw you in Paris. You were passing on a coach. The man with me told me it was you, and I wanted to follow the coach in a fiacre, but he said he knew at what hotel you were stopping, and so I let you go, but you were not at that hotel, or at any other—at least, I couldn't find you."
"What would you have done—?" asked Miss Langham. "Never mind," she interrupted, "go on."
"Well, that's all," said Clay, smiling. "That's all, at least, that concerns you. That is the romance of this poor young man."
"But not the only one," she said, for the sake of saying something.
"Perhaps not," answered Clay, "but the only one that counts. I always knew I was going to meet you some day. And now I have met you."
"Well, and now that you have met me," said Miss Langham, looking at him in some amusement, "are you sorry?"
"No—" said Clay, but so slowly and with such consideration that Miss Langham laughed and held her head a little higher. "Not sorry to meet you, but to meet you in such surroundings."
"What fault do you find with my surroundings?"
"Well, these people," answered Clay, "they are so foolish, so futile. You shouldn't be here. There must be something else better than this. You can't make me believe that you choose it. In Europe you could have a salon, or you could influence statesmen. There surely must be something here for you to turn to as well. Something better than golf-sticks and salted almonds."
"What do you know of me?" said Miss Langham, steadily. "Only what you have read of me in impertinent paragraphs. How do you know I am fitted for anything else but just this? You never spoke with me before to-night."
"That has nothing to do with it," said Clay, quickly. "Time is made for ordinary people. When people who amount to anything meet they don't have to waste months in finding each other out. It is only the doubtful ones who have to be tested again and again. When I was a kid in the diamond mines in Kimberley, I have seen the experts pick out a perfect diamond from the heap at the first glance, and without a moment's hesitation. It was the cheap stones they spent most of the afternoon over. Suppose I HAVE only seen you to-night for the first time; suppose I shall not see you again, which is quite likely, for I sail tomorrow for South America—what of that? I am just as sure of what you are as though I had known you for years."
Miss Langham looked at him for a moment in silence. Her beauty was so great that she could take her time to speak. She was not afraid of losing any one's attention.
"And have you come out of the West, knowing me so well, just to tell me that I am wasting myself?" she said. "Is that all?"
"That is all," answered Clay. "You know the things I would like to tell you," he added, looking at her closely.
"I think I like to be told the other things best," she said, "they are the easier to believe."
"You have to believe whatever I tell you," said Clay, smiling. The girl pressed her hands together in her lap, and looked at him curiously. The people about them were moving and making their farewells, and they brought her back to the present with a start.
"I'm sorry you're going away," she said. "It has been so odd. You come suddenly up out of the wilderness, and set me to thinking and try to trouble me with questions about myself, and then steal away again without stopping to help me to settle them. Is it fair?" She rose and put out her hand, and he took it and held it for a moment, while they stood looking at one another.
"I am coming back," he said, "and I will find that you have settled them for yourself."
"Good-by," she said, in so low a tone that the people standing near them could not hear. "You haven't asked me for it, you know, but—I think I shall let you keep that picture."
"Thank you," said Clay, smiling, "I meant to."
"You can keep it," she continued, turning back, "because it is not my picture. It is a picture of a girl who ceased to exist four years ago, and whom you have never met. Good-night."
Mr. Langham and Hope, his younger daughter, had been to the theatre. The performance had been one which delighted Miss Hope, and which satisfied her father because he loved to hear her laugh. Mr. Langham was the slave of his own good fortune. By instinct and education he was a man of leisure and culture, but the wealth he had inherited was like an unruly child that needed his constant watching, and in keeping it well in hand he had become a man of business, with time for nothing else.
Alice Langham, on her return from Mrs. Porter's dinner, found him in his study engaged with a game of solitaire, while Hope was kneeling on a chair beside him with her elbows on the table. Mr. Langham had been troubled with insomnia of late, and so it often happened that when Alice returned from a ball she would find him sitting with a novel, or his game of solitaire, and Hope, who had crept downstairs from her bed, dozing in front of the open fire and keeping him silent company. The father and the younger daughter were very close to one another, and had grown especially so since his wife had died and his son and heir had gone to college. This fourth member of the family was a great bond of sympathy and interest between them, and his triumphs and escapades at Yale were the chief subjects of their conversation. It was told by the directors of a great Western railroad, who had come to New York to discuss an important question with Mr. Langham, that they had been ushered downstairs one night into his basement, where they had found the President of the Board and his daughter Hope working out a game of football on the billiard table. They had chalked it off into what corresponded to five-yard lines, and they were hurling twenty-two chess-men across it in "flying wedges" and practising the several tricks which young Langham had intrusted to his sister under an oath of secrecy. The sight filled the directors with the horrible fear that business troubles had turned the President's mind, but after they had sat for half an hour perched on the high chairs around the table, while Hope excitedly explained the game to them, they decided that he was wiser than they knew, and each left the house regretting he had no son worthy enough to bring "that young girl" into the Far West.
"You are home early," said Mr. Langham, as Alice stood above him pulling at her gloves. "I thought you said you were going on to some dance."
"I was tired," his daughter answered.
"Well, when I'm out," commented Hope, "I won't come home at eleven o'clock. Alice always was a quitter."
"A what?" asked the older sister.
"Tell us what you had for dinner," said Hope. "I know it isn't nice to ask," she added, hastily, "but I always like to know."
"I don't remember," Miss Langham answered, smiling at her father, "except that he was very much sunburned and had most perplexing eyes."
"Oh, of course," assented Hope, "I suppose you mean by that that you talked with some man all through dinner. Well, I think there is a time for everything."
"Father," interrupted Miss Langham, "do you know many engineers—I mean do you come in contact with them through the railroads and mines you have an interest in? I am rather curious about them," she said, lightly. "They seem to be a most picturesque lot of young men."
"Engineers? Of course," said Mr. Langham, vaguely, with the ten of spades held doubtfully in air. "Sometimes we have to depend upon them altogether. We decide from what the engineering experts tell us whether we will invest in a thing or not."
"I don't think I mean the big men of the profession," said his daughter, doubtfully. "I mean those who do the rough work. The men who dig the mines and lay out the railroads. Do you know any of them?"
"Some of them," said Mr. Langham, leaning back and shuffling the cards for a new game. "Why?"
"Did you ever hear of a Mr. Robert Clay?"
Mr. Langham smiled as he placed the cards one above the other in even rows. "Very often," he said. "He sails to-morrow to open up the largest iron deposits in South America. He goes for the Valencia Mining Company. Valencia is the capital of Olancho, one of those little republics down there."
"Do you—are you interested in that company?" asked Miss Langham, seating herself before the fire and holding out her hands toward it. "Does Mr. Clay know that you are?"
"Yes—I am interested in it," Mr. Langham replied, studying the cards before him, "but I don't think Clay knows it—nobody knows it yet, except the president and the other officers." He lifted a card and put it down again in some indecision. "It's generally supposed to be operated by a company, but all the stock is owned by one man. As a matter of fact, my dear children," exclaimed Mr. Langham, as he placed a deuce of clubs upon a deuce of spades with a smile of content, "the Valencia Mining Company is your beloved father."
"Oh," said Miss Langham, as she looked steadily into the fire.
Hope tapped her lips gently with the back of her hand to hide the fact that she was sleepy, and nudged her father's elbow. "You shouldn't have put the deuce there," she said, "you should have used it to build with on the ace."
A year before Mrs. Porter's dinner a tramp steamer on her way to the capital of Brazil had steered so close to the shores of Olancho that her solitary passenger could look into the caverns the waves had tunnelled in the limestone cliffs along the coast. The solitary passenger was Robert Clay, and he made a guess that the white palisades which fringed the base of the mountains along the shore had been forced up above the level of the sea many years before by some volcanic action. Olancho, as many people know, is situated on the northeastern coast of South America, and its shores are washed by the main equatorial current. From the deck of a passing vessel you can obtain but little idea of Olancho or of the abundance and tropical beauty which lies hidden away behind the rampart of mountains on her shore. You can see only their desolate dark-green front, and the white caves at their base, into which the waves rush with an echoing roar, and in and out of which fly continually thousands of frightened bats.
The mining engineer on the rail of the tramp steamer observed this peculiar formation of the coast with listless interest, until he noted, when the vessel stood some thirty miles north of the harbor of Valencia, that the limestone formation had disappeared, and that the waves now beat against the base of the mountains themselves. There were five of these mountains which jutted out into the ocean, and they suggested roughly the five knuckles of a giant hand clenched and lying flat upon the surface of the water. They extended for seven miles, and then the caverns in the palisades began again and continued on down the coast to the great cliffs that guard the harbor of Olancho's capital.
"The waves tunnelled their way easily enough until they ran up against those five mountains," mused the engineer, "and then they had to fall back." He walked to the captain's cabin and asked to look at a map of the coast line. "I believe I won't go to Rio," he said later in the day; "I think I will drop off here at Valencia."
So he left the tramp steamer at that place and disappeared into the interior with an ox-cart and a couple of pack-mules, and returned to write a lengthy letter from the Consul's office to a Mr. Langham in the United States, knowing he was largely interested in mines and in mining. "There are five mountains filled with ore," Clay wrote, "which should be extracted by open-faced workings. I saw great masses of red hematite lying exposed on the side of the mountain, only waiting a pick and shovel, and at one place there were five thousand tons in plain sight. I should call the stuff first-class Bessemer ore, running about sixty-three per cent metallic iron. The people know it is there, but have no knowledge of its value, and are too lazy to ever work it themselves. As to transportation, it would only be necessary to run a freight railroad twenty miles along the sea-coast to the harbor of Valencia and dump your ore from your own pier into your own vessels. It would not, I think, be possible to ship direct from the mines themselves, even though, as I say, the ore runs right down into the water, because there is no place at which it would be safe for a large vessel to touch. I will look into the political side of it and see what sort of a concession I can get for you. I should think ten per cent of the output would satisfy them, and they would, of course, admit machinery and plant free of duty."
Six months after this communication had arrived in New York City, the Valencia Mining Company was formally incorporated, and a man named Van Antwerp, with two hundred workmen and a half-dozen assistants, was sent South to lay out the freight railroad, to erect the dumping-pier, and to strip the five mountains of their forests and underbrush. It was not a task for a holiday, but a stern, difficult, and perplexing problem, and Van Antwerp was not quite the man to solve it. He was stubborn, self-confident, and indifferent by turns. He did not depend upon his lieutenants, but jealously guarded his own opinions from the least question or discussion, and at every step he antagonized the easy-going people among whom he had come to work. He had no patience with their habits of procrastination, and he was continually offending their lazy good-nature and their pride. He treated the rich planters, who owned the land between the mines and the harbor over which the freight railroad must run, with as little consideration as he showed the regiment of soldiers which the Government had farmed out to the company to serve as laborers in the mines. Six months after Van Antwerp had taken charge at Valencia, Clay, who had finished the railroad in Mexico, of which King had spoken, was asked by telegraph to undertake the work of getting the ore out of the mountains he had discovered, and shipping it North. He accepted the offer and was given the title of General Manager and Resident Director, and an enormous salary, and was also given to understand that the rough work of preparation had been accomplished, and that the more important service of picking up the five mountains and putting them in fragments into tramp steamers would continue under his direction. He had a letter of recall for Van Antwerp, and a letter of introduction to the Minister of Mines and Agriculture. Further than that he knew nothing of the work before him, but he concluded, from the fact that he had been paid the almost prohibitive sum he had asked for his services, that it must be important, or that he had reached that place in his career when he could stop actual work and live easily, as an expert, on the work of others.
Clay rolled along the coast from Valencia to the mines in a paddle-wheeled steamer that had served its usefulness on the Mississippi, and which had been rotting at the levees in New Orleans, when Van Antwerp had chartered it to carry tools and machinery to the mines and to serve as a private launch for himself. It was a choice either of this steamer and landing in a small boat, or riding along the line of the unfinished railroad on horseback. Either route consumed six valuable hours, and Clay, who was anxious to see his new field of action, beat impatiently upon the rail of the rolling tub as it wallowed in the sea.
He spent the first three days after his arrival at the mines in the mountains, climbing them on foot and skirting their base on horseback, and sleeping where night overtook him. Van Antwerp did not accompany him on his tour of inspection through the mines, but delegated that duty to an engineer named MacWilliams, and to Weimer, the United States Consul at Valencia, who had served the company in many ways and who was in its closest confidence.
For three days the men toiled heavily over fallen trunks and trees, slippery with the moss of centuries, or slid backward on the rolling stones in the waterways, or clung to their ponies' backs to dodge the hanging creepers. At times for hours together they walked in single file, bent nearly double, and seeing nothing before them but the shining backs and shoulders of the negroes who hacked out the way for them to go. And again they would come suddenly upon a precipice, and drink in the soft cool breath of the ocean, and look down thousands of feet upon the impenetrable green under which they had been crawling, out to where it met the sparkling surface of the Caribbean Sea. It was three days of unceasing activity while the sun shone, and of anxious questionings around the camp-fire when the darkness fell, and when there were no sounds on the mountain-side but that of falling water in a distant ravine or the calls of the night-birds.
On the morning of the fourth day Clay and his attendants returned to camp and rode to where the men had just begun to blast away the sloping surface of the mountain.
As Clay passed between the zinc sheds and palm huts of the soldier-workmen, they came running out to meet him, and one, who seemed to be a leader, touched his bridle, and with his straw sombrero in his hand begged for a word with el Senor the Director.
The news of Clay's return had reached the opening, and the throb of the dummy-engines and the roar of the blasting ceased as the assistant-engineers came down the valley to greet the new manager. They found him seated on his horse gazing ahead of him, and listening to the story of the soldier, whose fingers, as he spoke, trembled in the air, with all the grace and passion of his Southern nature, while back of him his companions stood humbly, in a silent chorus, with eager, supplicating eyes. Clay answered the man's speech curtly, with a few short words, in the Spanish patois in which he had been addressed, and then turned and smiled grimly upon the expectant group of engineers. He kept them waiting for some short space, while he looked them over carefully, as though he had never seen them before.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, "I'm glad to have you here all together. I am only sorry you didn't come in time to hear what this fellow has had to say. I don't as a rule listen that long to complaints, but he told me what I have seen for myself and what has been told me by others. I have been here three days now, and I assure you, gentlemen, that my easiest course would be to pack up my things and go home on the next steamer. I was sent down here to take charge of a mine in active operation, and I find—what? I find that in six months you have done almost nothing, and that the little you have condescended to do has been done so badly that it will have to be done over again; that you have not only wasted a half year of time—and I can't tell how much money—but that you have succeeded in antagonizing all the people on whose good-will we are absolutely dependent; you have allowed your machinery to rust in the rain, and your workmen to rot with sickness. You have not only done nothing, but you haven't a blue print to show me what you meant to do. I have never in my life come across laziness and mismanagement and incompetency upon such a magnificent and reckless scale. You have not built the pier, you have not opened the freight road, you have not taken out an ounce of ore. You know more of Valencia than you know of these mines; you know it from the Alameda to the Canal. You can tell me what night the band plays in the Plaza, but you can't give me the elevation of one of these hills. You have spent your days on the pavements in front of cafes, and your nights in dance-halls, and you have been drawing salaries every month. I've more respect for these half-breeds that you've allowed to starve in this fever-bed than I have for you. You have treated them worse than they'd treat a dog, and if any of them die, it's on your heads. You have put them in a fever-camp which you have not even taken the trouble to drain. Your commissariat is rotten, and you have let them drink all the rum they wanted. There is not one of you—"
The group of silent men broke, and one of them stepped forward and shook his forefinger at Clay.
"No man can talk to me like that," he said, warningly, "and think I'll work under him. I resign here and now."
"You what—" cried Clay, "you resign?"
He whirled his horse round with a dig of his spur and faced them.
"How dare you talk of resigning? I'll pack the whole lot of you back to New York on the first steamer, if I want to, and I'll give you such characters that you'll be glad to get a job carrying a transit. You're in no position to talk of resigning yet—not one of you. Yes," he added, interrupting himself, "one of you is MacWilliams, the man who had charge of the railroad. It's no fault of his that the road's not working. I understand that he couldn't get the right of way from the people who owned the land, but I have seen what he has done, and his plans, and I apologize to him—to MacWilliams. As for the rest of you, I'll give you a month's trial. It will be a month before the next steamer could get here anyway, and I'll give you that long to redeem yourselves. At the end of that time we will have another talk, but you are here now only on your good behavior and on my sufferance. Good-morning."
As Clay had boasted, he was not the man to throw up his position because he found the part he had to play was not that of leading man, but rather one of general utility, and although it had been several years since it had been part of his duties to oversee the setting up of machinery, and the policing of a mining camp, he threw himself as earnestly into the work before him as though to show his subordinates that it did not matter who did the work, so long as it was done. The men at first were sulky, resentful, and suspicious, but they could not long resist the fact that Clay was doing the work of five men and five different kinds of work, not only without grumbling, but apparently with the keenest pleasure.
He conciliated the rich coffee planters who owned the land which he wanted for the freight road by calls of the most formal state and dinners of much less formality, for he saw that the iron mine had its social as well as its political side. And with this fact in mind, he opened the railroad with great ceremony, and much music and feasting, and the first piece of ore taken out of the mine was presented to the wife of the Minister of the Interior in a cluster of diamonds, which made the wives of the other members of the Cabinet regret that their husbands had not chosen that portfolio. Six months followed of hard, unremitting work, during which time the great pier grew out into the bay from MacWilliams' railroad, and the face of the first mountain was scarred and torn of its green, and left in mangled nakedness, while the ringing of hammers and picks, and the racking blasts of dynamite, and the warning whistles of the dummy-engines drove away the accumulated silence of centuries.
It had been a long uphill fight, and Clay had enjoyed it mightily. Two unexpected events had contributed to help it. One was the arrival in Valencia of young Teddy Langham, who came ostensibly to learn the profession of which Clay was so conspicuous an example, and in reality to watch over his father's interests. He was put at Clay's elbow, and Clay made him learn in spite of himself, for he ruled him and MacWilliams of both of whom he was very fond, as though, so they complained, they were the laziest and the most rebellious members of his entire staff. The second event of importance was the announcement made one day by young Langham that his father's physician had ordered rest in a mild climate, and that he and his daughters were coming in a month to spend the winter in Valencia, and to see how the son and heir had developed as a man of business.
The idea of Mr. Langham's coming to visit Olancho to inspect his new possessions was not a surprise to Clay. It had occurred to him as possible before, especially after the son had come to join them there. The place was interesting and beautiful enough in itself to justify a visit, and it was only a ten days' voyage from New York. But he had never considered the chance of Miss Langham's coming, and when that was now not only possible but a certainty, he dreamed of little else. He lived as earnestly and toiled as indefatigably as before, but the place was utterly transformed for him. He saw it now as she would see it when she came, even while at the same time his own eyes retained their point of view. It was as though he had lengthened the focus of a glass, and looked beyond at what was beautiful and picturesque, instead of what was near at hand and practicable. He found himself smiling with anticipation of her pleasure in the orchids hanging from the dead trees, high above the opening of the mine, and in the parrots hurling themselves like gayly colored missiles among the vines; and he considered the harbor at night with its colored lamps floating on the black water as a scene set for her eyes. He planned the dinners that he would give in her honor on the balcony of the great restaurant in the Plaza on those nights when the band played, and the senoritas circled in long lines between admiring rows of officers and caballeros. And he imagined how, when the ore-boats had been filled and his work had slackened, he would be free to ride with her along the rough mountain roads, between magnificent pillars of royal palms, or to venture forth in excursions down the bay, to explore the caves and to lunch on board the rolling paddle-wheel steamer, which he would have re painted and gilded for her coming. He pictured himself acting as her guide over the great mines, answering her simple questions about the strange machinery, and the crew of workmen, and the local government by which he ruled two thousand men. It was not on account of any personal pride in the mines that he wanted her to see them, it was not because he had discovered and planned and opened them that he wished to show them to her, but as a curious spectacle that he hoped would give her a moment's interest.
But his keenest pleasure was when young Langham suggested that they should build a house for his people on the edge of the hill that jutted out over the harbor and the great ore pier. If this were done, Langham urged, it would be possible for him to see much more of his family than he would be able to do were they installed in the city, five miles away.
"We can still live in the office at this end of the railroad," the boy said, "and then we shall have them within call at night when we get back from work; but if they are in Valencia, it will take the greater part of the evening going there and all of the night getting back, for I can't pass that club under three hours. It will keep us out of temptation."
"Yes, exactly," said Clay, with a guilty smile, "it will keep us out of temptation."
So they cleared away the underbrush, and put a double force of men to work on what was to be the most beautiful and comfortable bungalow on the edge of the harbor. It had blue and green and white tiles on the floors, and walls of bamboo, and a red roof of curved tiles to let in the air, and dragons' heads for water-spouts, and verandas as broad as the house itself. There was an open court in the middle hung with balconies looking down upon a splashing fountain, and to decorate this patio, they levied upon people for miles around for tropical plants and colored mats and awnings. They cut down the trees that hid the view of the long harbor leading from the sea into Valencia, and planted a rampart of other trees to hide the iron-ore pier, and they sodded the raw spots where the men had been building, until the place was as completely transformed as though a fairy had waved her wand above it.
It was to be a great surprise, and they were all—Clay, MacWilliams, and Langham—as keenly interested in it as though each were preparing it for his honeymoon. They would be walking together in Valencia when one would say, "We ought to have that for the house," and without question they would march into the shop together and order whatever they fancied to be sent out to the house of the president of the mines on the hill. They stocked it with wine and linens, and hired a volante and six horses, and fitted out the driver with a new pair of boots that reached above his knees, and a silver jacket and a sombrero that was so heavy with braid that it flashed like a halo about his head in the sunlight, and he was ordered not to wear it until the ladies came, under penalty of arrest. It delighted Clay to find that it was only the beautiful things and the fine things of his daily routine that suggested her to him, as though she could not be associated in his mind with anything less worthy, and he kept saying to himself, "She will like this view from the end of the terrace," and "This will be her favorite walk," or "She will swing her hammock here," and "I know she will not fancy the rug that Weimer chose."
While this fairy palace was growing the three men lived as roughly as before in the wooden hut at the terminus of the freight road, three hundred yards below the house, and hidden from it by an impenetrable rampart of brush and Spanish bayonet. There was a rough road leading from it to the city, five miles away, which they had extended still farther up the hill to the Palms, which was the name Langham had selected for his father's house. And when it was finally finished, they continued to live under the corrugated zinc roof of their office building, and locking up the Palms, left it in charge of a gardener and a watchman until the coming of its rightful owners.
It had been a viciously hot, close day, and even now the air came in sickening waves, like a blast from the engine-room of a steamer, and the heat lightning played round the mountains over the harbor and showed the empty wharves, and the black outlines of the steamers, and the white front of the Custom-House, and the long half-circle of twinkling lamps along the quay. MacWilliams and Langham sat panting on the lower steps of the office-porch considering whether they were too lazy to clean themselves and be rowed over to the city, where, as it was Sunday night, was promised much entertainment. They had been for the last hour trying to make up their minds as to this, and appealing to Clay to stop work and decide for them. But he sat inside at a table figuring and writing under the green shade of a student's lamp and made no answer. The walls of Clay's office were of unplaned boards, bristling with splinters, and hung with blue prints and outline maps of the mine. A gaudily colored portrait of Madame la Presidenta, the noble and beautiful woman whom Alvarez, the President of Olancho, had lately married in Spain, was pinned to the wall above the table. This table, with its green oil-cloth top, and the lamp, about which winged insects beat noisily, and an earthen water-jar—from which the water dripped as regularly as the ticking of a clock—were the only articles of furniture in the office. On a shelf at one side of the door lay the men's machetes, a belt of cartridges, and a revolver in a holster.
Clay rose from the table and stood in the light of the open door, stretching himself gingerly, for his joints were sore and stiff with fording streams and climbing the surfaces of rocks. The red ore and yellow mud of the mines were plastered over his boots and riding-breeches, where he had stood knee-deep in the water, and his shirt stuck to him like a wet bathing-suit, showing his ribs when he breathed and the curves of his broad chest. A ring of burning paper and hot ashes fell from his cigarette to his breast and burnt a hole through the cotton shirt, and he let it lie there and watched it burn with a grim smile.
"I wanted to see," he explained, catching the look of listless curiosity in MacWilliams's eye, "whether there was anything hotter than my blood. It's racing around like boiling water in a pot."
"Listen," said Langham, holding up his hand. "There goes the call for prayers in the convent, and now it's too late to go to town. I am glad, rather. I'm too tired to keep awake, and besides, they don't know how to amuse themselves in a civilized way—at least not in my way. I wish I could just drop in at home about now; don't you, MacWilliams? Just about this time up in God's country all the people are at the theatre, or they've just finished dinner and are sitting around sipping cool green mint, trickling through little lumps of ice. What I'd like—" he stopped and shut one eye and gazed, with his head on one side, at the unimaginative MacWilliams—"what I'd like to do now," he continued, thoughtfully, "would be to sit in the front row at a comic opera, ON THE AISLE. The prima donna must be very, very beautiful, and sing most of her songs at me, and there must be three comedians, all good, and a chorus entirely composed of girls. I never could see why they have men in the chorus, anyway. No one ever looks at them. Now that's where I'd like to be. What would you like, MacWilliams?"
MacWilliams was a type with which Clay was intimately familiar, but to the college-bred Langham he was a revelation and a joy. He came from some little town in the West, and had learned what he knew of engineering at the transit's mouth, after he had first served his apprenticeship by cutting sage-brush and driving stakes. His life had been spent in Mexico and Central America, and he spoke of the home he had not seen in ten years with the aggressive loyalty of the confirmed wanderer, and he was known to prefer and to import canned corn and canned tomatoes in preference to eating the wonderful fruits of the country, because the former came from the States and tasted to him of home. He had crowded into his young life experiences that would have shattered the nerves of any other man with a more sensitive conscience and a less happy sense of humor; but these same experiences had only served to make him shrewd and self-confident and at his ease when the occasion or difficulty came.
He pulled meditatively on his pipe and considered Langham's question deeply, while Clay and the younger boy sat with their arms upon their knees and waited for his decision in thoughtful silence.
"I'd like to go to the theatre, too," said MacWilliams, with an air as though to show that he also was possessed of artistic tastes. "I'd like to see a comical chap I saw once in '80—oh, long ago—before I joined the P. Q. & M. He WAS funny. His name was Owens; that was his name, John E. Owens—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, MacWilliams," protested Langham, in dismay; "he's been dead for five years."
"Has he?" said MacWilliams, thoughtfully. "Well—" he concluded, unabashed, "I can't help that, he's the one I'd like to see best."
"You can have another wish, Mac, you know," urged Langham, "can't he, Clay?"
Clay nodded gravely, and MacWilliams frowned again in thought. "No," he said after an effort, "Owens, John E. Owens; that's the one I want to see."
"Well, now I want another wish, too," said Langham. "I move we can each have two wishes. I wish—"
"Wait until I've had mine," said Clay. "You've had one turn. I want to be in a place I know in Vienna. It's not hot like this, but cool and fresh. It's an open, out-of-door concert-garden, with hundreds of colored lights and trees, and there's always a breeze coming through. And Eduard Strauss, the son, you know, leads the orchestra there, and they play nothing but waltzes, and he stands in front of them, and begins by raising himself on his toes, and then he lifts his shoulders gently—and then sinks back again and raises his baton as though he were drawing the music out after it, and the whole place seems to rock and move. It's like being picked up and carried on the deck of a yacht over great waves; and all around you are the beautiful Viennese women and those tall Austrian officers in their long, blue coats and flat hats and silver swords. And there are cool drinks—" continued Clay, with his eyes fixed on the coming storm—"all sorts of cool drinks—in high, thin glasses, full of ice, all the ice you want—"
"Oh, drop it, will you?" cried Langham, with a shrug of his damp shoulders. "I can't stand it. I'm parching."
"Wait a minute," interrupted MacWilliams, leaning forward and looking into the night. "Some one's coming." There was a sound down the road of hoofs and the rattle of the land-crabs as they scrambled off into the bushes, and two men on horseback came suddenly out of the darkness and drew rein in the light from the open door. The first was General Mendoza, the leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and the other, his orderly. The General dropped his Panama hat to his knee and bowed in the saddle three times.
"Good-evening, your Excellency," said Clay, rising. "Tell that peon to get my coat, will you?" he added, turning to Langham. Langham clapped his hands, and the clanging of a guitar ceased, and their servant and cook came out from the back of the hut and held the General's horse while he dismounted. "Wait until I get you a chair," said Clay. "You'll find those steps rather bad for white duck."
"I am fortunate in finding you at home," said the officer, smiling, and showing his white teeth. "The telephone is not working. I tried at the club, but I could not call you."
"It's the storm, I suppose," Clay answered, as he struggled into his jacket. "Let me offer you something to drink." He entered the house, and returned with several bottles on a tray and a bundle of cigars. The Spanish-American poured himself out a glass of water, mixing it with Jamaica rum, and said, smiling again, "It is a saying of your countrymen that when a man first comes to Olancho he puts a little rum into his water, and that when he is here some time he puts a little water in his rum."
"Yes," laughed Clay. "I'm afraid that's true."
There was a pause while the men sipped at their glasses, and looked at the horses and the orderly. The clanging of the guitar began again from the kitchen. "You have a very beautiful view here of the harbor, yes," said Mendoza. He seemed to enjoy the pause after his ride, and to be in no haste to begin on the object of his errand. MacWilliams and Langham eyed each other covertly, and Clay examined the end of his cigar, and they all waited.
"And how are the mines progressing, eh?" asked the officer, genially. "You find much good iron in them, they tell me."
"Yes, we are doing very well," Clay assented; "it was difficult at first, but now that things are in working order, we are getting out about ten thousand tons a month. We hope to increase that soon to twenty thousand when the new openings are developed and our shipping facilities are in better shape."
"So much!" exclaimed the General, pleasantly.
"Of which the Government of my country is to get its share of ten per cent—one thousand tons! It is munificent!" He laughed and shook his head slyly at Clay, who smiled in dissent.
"But you see, sir," said Clay, "you cannot blame us. The mines have always been there, before this Government came in, before the Spaniards were here, before there was any Government at all, but there was not the capital to open them up, I suppose, or—and it needed a certain energy to begin the attack. Your people let the chance go, and, as it turned out, I think they were very wise in doing so. They get ten per cent of the output. That's ten per cent on nothing, for the mines really didn't exist, as far as you were concerned, until we came, did they? They were just so much waste land, and they would have remained so. And look at the price we paid down before we cut a tree. Three millions of dollars; that's a good deal of money. It will be some time before we realize anything on that investment."
Mendoza shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "I will be frank with you," he said, with the air of one to whom dissimulation is difficult. "I come here to-night on an unpleasant errand, but it is with me a matter of duty, and I am a soldier, to whom duty is the foremost ever. I have come to tell you, Mr. Clay, that we, the Opposition, are not satisfied with the manner in which the Government has disposed of these great iron deposits. When I say not satisfied, my dear friend, I speak most moderately. I should say that we are surprised and indignant, and we are determined the wrong it has done our country shall be righted. I have the honor to have been chosen to speak for our party on this most important question, and on next Tuesday, sir," the General stood up and bowed, as though he were before a great assembly, "I will rise in the Senate and move a vote of want of confidence in the Government for the manner in which it has given away the richest possessions in the storehouse of my country, giving it not only to aliens, but for a pittance, for a share which is not a share, but a bribe, to blind the eyes of the people. It has been a shameful bargain, and I cannot say who is to blame; I accuse no one. But I suspect, and I will demand an investigation; I will demand that the value not of one-tenth, but of one-half of all the iron that your company takes out of Olancho shall be paid into the treasury of the State. And I come to you to-night, as the Resident Director, to inform you beforehand of my intention. I do not wish to take you unprepared. I do not blame your people; they are business men, they know how to make good bargains, they get what they best can. That is the rule of trade, but they have gone too far, and I advise you to communicate with your people in New York and learn what they are prepared to offer now—now that they have to deal with men who do not consider their own interests but the interests of their country."
Mendoza made a sweeping bow and seated himself, frowning dramatically, with folded arms. His voice still hung in the air, for he had spoken as earnestly as though he imagined himself already standing in the hall of the Senate championing the cause of the people.
MacWilliams looked up at Clay from where he sat on the steps below him, but Clay did not notice him, and there was no sound, except the quick sputtering of the nicotine in Langham's pipe, at which he pulled quickly, and which was the only outward sign the boy gave of his interest. Clay shifted one muddy boot over the other and leaned back with his hands stuck in his belt.
"Why didn't you speak of this sooner?" he asked.
"Ah, yes, that is fair," said the General, quickly. "I know that it is late, and I regret it, and I see that we cause you inconvenience; but how could I speak sooner when I was ignorant of what was going on? I have been away with my troops. I am a soldier first, a politician after. During the last year I have been engaged in guarding the frontier. No news comes to a General in the field moving from camp to camp and always in the saddle; but I may venture to hope, sir, that news has come to you of me?"
Clay pressed his lips together and bowed his head.
"We have heard of your victories, General, yes," he said; "and on your return you say you found things had not been going to your liking?"
"That is it," assented the other, eagerly. "I find that indignation reigns on every side. I find my friends complaining of the railroad which you run across their land. I find that fifteen hundred soldiers are turned into laborers, with picks and spades, working by the side of negroes and your Irish; they have not been paid their wages, and they have been fed worse than though they were on the march; sickness and—"
Clay moved impatiently and dropped his boot heavily on the porch.
"That was true at first," he interrupted, "but it is not so now. I should be glad, General, to take you over the men's quarters at any time. As for their not having been paid, they were never paid by their own Government before they came to us and for the same reason, because the petty officers kept back the money, just as they have always done. But the men are paid now. However, this is not of the most importance. Who is it that complains of the terms of our concession?"
"Every one!" exclaimed Mendoza, throwing out his arms, "and they ask, moreover, this: they ask why, if this mine is so rich, why was not the stock offered here to us in this country? Why was it not put on the market, that any one might buy? We have rich men in Olancho, why should not they benefit first of all others by the wealth of their own lands? But no! we are not asked to buy. All the stock is taken in New York, no one benefits but the State, and it receives only ten per cent. It is monstrous!"
"I see," said Clay, gravely. "That had not occurred to me before. They feel they have been slighted. I see." He paused for a moment as if in serious consideration. "Well," he added, "that might be arranged."
He turned and jerked his head toward the open door. "If you boys mean to go to town to-night, you'd better be moving," he said. The two men rose together and bowed silently to their guest.
"I should like if Mr. Langham would remain a moment with us," said Mendoza, politely. "I understand that it is his father who controls the stock of the company. If we discuss any arrangement it might be well if he were here."
Clay was sitting with his chin on his breast, and he did not look up, nor did the young man turn to him for any prompting. "I'm not down here as my father's son," he said, "I am an employee of Mr. Clay's. He represents the company. Good-night, sir."
"You think, then," said Clay, "that if your friends were given an opportunity to subscribe to the stock they would feel less resentful toward us? They would think it was fairer to all?"
"I know it," said Mendoza; "why should the stock go out of the country when those living here are able to buy it?"
"Exactly," said Clay, "of course. Can you tell me this, General? Are the gentlemen who want to buy stock in the mine the same men who are in the Senate? The men who are objecting to the terms of our concession?"
"With a few exceptions they are the same men."
Clay looked out over the harbor at the lights of the town, and the General twirled his hat around his knee and gazed with appreciation at the stars above him.
"Because if they are," Clay continued, "and they succeed in getting our share cut down from ninety per cent to fifty per cent, they must see that the stock would be worth just forty per cent less than it is now."
"That is true," assented the other. "I have thought of that, and if the Senators in Opposition were given a chance to subscribe, I am sure they would see that it is better wisdom to drop their objections to the concession, and as stockholders allow you to keep ninety per cent of the output. And, again," continued Mendoza, "it is really better for the country that the money should go to its people than that it should be stored up in the vaults of the treasury, when there is always the danger that the President will seize it; or, if not this one, the next one."
"I should think—that is—it seems to me," said Clay with careful consideration, "that your Excellency might be able to render us great help in this matter yourself. We need a friend among the Opposition. In fact—I see where you could assist us in many ways, where your services would be strictly in the line of your public duty and yet benefit us very much. Of course I cannot speak authoritatively without first consulting Mr. Langham; but I should think he would allow you personally to purchase as large a block of the stock as you could wish, either to keep yourself or to resell and distribute among those of your friends in Opposition where it would do the most good."
Clay looked over inquiringly to where Mendoza sat in the light of the open door, and the General smiled faintly, and emitted a pleased little sigh of relief. "Indeed," continued Clay, "I should think Mr. Langham might even save you the formality of purchasing the stock outright by sending you its money equivalent. I beg your pardon," he asked, interrupting himself, "does your orderly understand English?"
"He does not," the General assured him, eagerly, dragging his chair a little closer.
"Suppose now that Mr. Langham were to put fifty or let us say sixty thousand dollars to your account in the Valencia Bank, do you think this vote of want of confidence in the Government on the question of our concession would still be moved?"
"I am sure it would not," exclaimed the leader of the Opposition, nodding his head violently.
"Sixty thousand dollars," repeated Clay, slowly, "for yourself; and do you think, General, that were you paid that sum you would be able to call off your friends, or would they make a demand for stock also?"
"Have no anxiety at all, they do just what I say," returned Mendoza, in an eager whisper. "If I say 'It is all right, I am satisfied with what the Government has done in my absence,' it is enough. And I will say it, I give you the word of a soldier, I will say it. I will not move a vote of want of confidence on Tuesday. You need go no farther than myself. I am glad that I am powerful enough to serve you, and if you doubt me"—he struck his heart and bowed with a deprecatory smile—"you need not pay in the money in exchange for the stock all at the same time. You can pay ten thousand this year, and next year ten thousand more and so on, and so feel confident that I shall have the interests of the mine always in my heart. Who knows what may not happen in a year? I may be able to serve you even more. Who knows how long the present Government will last? But I give you my word of honor, no matter whether I be in Opposition or at the head of the Government, if I receive every six months the retaining fee of which you speak, I will be your representative. And my friends can do nothing. I despise them. I am the Opposition. You have done well, my dear sir, to consider me alone."
Clay turned in his chair and looked back of him through the office to the room beyond.
"Boys," he called, "you can come out now."
He rose and pushed his chair away and beckoned to the orderly who sat in the saddle holding the General's horse. Langham and MacWilliams came out and stood in the open door, and Mendoza rose and looked at Clay.
"You can go now," Clay said to him, quietly. "And you can rise in the Senate on Tuesday and move your vote of want of confidence and object to our concession, and when you have resumed your seat the Secretary of Mines will rise in his turn and tell the Senate how you stole out here in the night and tried to blackmail me, and begged me to bribe you to be silent, and that you offered to throw over your friends and to take all that we would give you and keep it yourself. That will make you popular with your friends, and will show the Government just what sort of a leader it has working against it."
Clay took a step forward and shook his finger in the officer's face. "Try to break that concession; try it. It was made by one Government to a body of honest, decent business men, with a Government of their own back of them, and if you interfere with our conceded rights to work those mines, I'll have a man-of-war down here with white paint on her hull, and she'll blow you and your little republic back up there into the mountains. Now you can go."
Mendoza had straightened with surprise when Clay first began to speak, and had then bent forward slightly as though he meant to interrupt him. His eyebrows were lowered in a straight line, and his lips moved quickly.
"You poor—" he began, contemptuously. "Bah," he exclaimed, "you're a fool; I should have sent a servant to talk with you. You are a child—but you are an insolent child," he cried, suddenly, his anger breaking out, "and I shall punish you. You dare to call me names! You shall fight me, you shall fight me to-morrow. You have insulted an officer, and you shall meet me at once, to-morrow."
"If I meet you to-morrow," Clay replied, "I will thrash you for your impertinence. The only reason I don't do it now is because you are on my doorstep. You had better not meet me tomorrow, or at any other time. And I have no leisure to fight duels with anybody."
"You are a coward," returned the other, quietly, "and I tell you so before my servant."
Clay gave a short laugh and turned to MacWilliams in the doorway.
"Hand me my gun, MacWilliams," he said, "it's on the shelf to the right."
MacWilliams stood still and shook his head. "Oh, let him alone," he said. "You've got him where you want him."
"Give me the gun, I tell you," repeated Clay. "I'm not going to hurt him, I'm only going to show him how I can shoot."
MacWilliams moved grudgingly across the porch and brought back the revolver and handed it to Clay. "Look out now," he said, "it's loaded."
At Clay's words the General had retreated hastily to his horse's head and had begun unbuckling the strap of his holster, and the orderly reached back into the boot for his carbine. Clay told him in Spanish to throw up his hands, and the man, with a frightened look at his officer, did as the revolver suggested. Then Clay motioned with his empty hand for the other to desist. "Don't do that," he said, "I'm not going to hurt you; I'm only going to frighten you a little."
He turned and looked at the student lamp inside, where it stood on the table in full view. Then he raised his revolver. He did not apparently hold it away from him by the butt, as other men do, but let it lie in the palm of his hand, into which it seemed to fit like the hand of a friend. His first shot broke the top of the glass chimney, the second shattered the green globe around it, the third put out the light, and the next drove the lamp crashing to the floor. There was a wild yell of terror from the back of the house, and the noise of a guitar falling down a flight of steps. "I have probably killed a very good cook," said Clay, "as I should as certainly kill you, if I were to meet you. Langham," he continued, "go tell that cook to come back."
The General sprang into his saddle, and the altitude it gave him seemed to bring back some of the jauntiness he had lost.
"That was very pretty," he said; "you have been a cowboy, so they tell me. It is quite evident by your manners. No matter, if we do not meet to-morrow it will be because I have more serious work to do. Two months from to-day there will be a new Government in Olancho and a new President, and the mines will have a new director. I have tried to be your friend, Mr. Clay. See how you like me for an enemy. Goodnight, gentlemen."
"Good-night," said MacWilliams, unmoved. "Please ask your man to close the gate after you."
When the sound of the hoofs had died away the men still stood in an uncomfortable silence, with Clay twirling the revolver around his middle finger. "I'm sorry I had to make a gallery play of that sort," he said. "But it was the only way to make that sort of man understand."
Langham sighed and shook his head ruefully.
"Well," he said, "I thought all the trouble was over, but it looks to me as though it had just begun. So far as I can see they're going to give the governor a run for his money yet."
Clay turned to MacWilliams.
"How many of Mendoza's soldiers have we in the mines, Mac?" he asked.
"About fifteen hundred," MacWilliams answered. "But you ought to hear the way they talk of him."
"They do, eh?" said Clay, with a smile of satisfaction. "That's good. 'Six hundred slaves who hate their masters.' What do they say about me?"
"Oh, they think you're all right. They know you got them their pay and all that. They'd do a lot for you."
"Would they fight for me?" asked Clay.
MacWilliams looked up and laughed uneasily. "I don't know," he said. "Why, old man? What do you mean to do?"
"Oh, I don't know," Clay answered. "I was just wondering whether I should like to be President of Olancho."
The Langhams were to arrive on Friday, and during the week before that day Clay went about with a long slip of paper in his pocket which he would consult earnestly in corners, and upon which he would note down the things that they had left undone. At night he would sit staring at it and turning it over in much concern, and would beg Langham to tell him what he could have meant when he wrote "see Weimer," or "clean brasses," or "S. Q. M." "Why should I see Weimer," he would exclaim, "and which brasses, and what does S. Q. M. stand for, for heaven's sake?"
They held a full-dress rehearsal in the bungalow to improve its state of preparation, and drilled the servants and talked English to them, so that they would know what was wanted when the young ladies came. It was an interesting exercise, and had the three young men been less serious in their anxiety to welcome the coming guests they would have found themselves very amusing—as when Langham would lean over the balcony in the court and shout back into the kitchen, in what was supposed to be an imitation of his sister's manner, "Bring my coffee and rolls—and don't take all day about it either," while Clay and MacWilliams stood anxiously below to head off the servants when they carried in a can of hot water instead of bringing the horses round to the door, as they had been told to do.
"Of course it's a bit rough and all that," Clay would say, "but they have only to tell us what they want changed and we can have it ready for them in an hour."
"Oh, my sisters are all right," Langham would reassure him; "they'll think it's fine. It will be like camping-out to them, or a picnic. They'll understand."
But to make sure, and to "test his girders," as Clay put it, they gave a dinner, and after that a breakfast. The President came to the first, with his wife, the Countess Manuelata, Madame la Presidenta, and Captain Stuart, late of the Gordon Highlanders, and now in command of the household troops at the Government House and of the body-guard of the President. He was a friend of Clay's and popular with every one present, except for the fact that he occupied this position, instead of serving his own Government in his own army. Some people said he had been crossed in love, others, less sentimental, that he had forged a check, or mixed up the mess accounts of his company. But Clay and MacWilliams said it concerned no one why he was there, and then emphasized the remark by picking a quarrel with a man who had given an unpleasant reason for it. Stuart, so far as they were concerned, could do no wrong.
The dinner went off very well, and the President consented to dine with them in a week, on the invitation of young Langham to meet his father.
"Miss Langham is very beautiful, they tell me," Madame Alvarez said to Clay. "I heard of her one winter in Rome; she was presented there and much admired."
"Yes, I believe she is considered very beautiful," Clay said. "I have only just met her, but she has travelled a great deal and knows every one who is of interest, and I think you will like her very much."
"I mean to like her," said the woman. "There are very few of the native ladies who have seen much of the world beyond a trip to Paris, where they live in their hotels and at the dressmaker's while their husbands enjoy themselves; and sometimes I am rather heart-sick for my home and my own people. I was overjoyed when I heard Miss Langham was to be with us this winter. But you must not keep her out here to yourselves. It is too far and too selfish. She must spend some time with me at the Government House."
"Yes," said Clay, "I am afraid of that. I am afraid the young ladies will find it rather lonely out here."
"Ah, no," exclaimed the woman, quickly. "You have made it beautiful, and it is only a half-hour's ride, except when it rains," she added, laughing, "and then it is almost as easy to row as to ride."
"I will have the road repaired," interrupted the President. "It is my wish, Mr. Clay, that you will command me in every way; I am most desirous to make the visit of Mr. Langham agreeable to him, he is doing so much for us."
The breakfast was given later in the week, and only men were present. They were the rich planters and bankers of Valencia, generals in the army, and members of the Cabinet, and officers from the tiny war-ship in the harbor. The breeze from the bay touched them through the open doors, the food and wine cheered them, and the eager courtesy and hospitality of the three Americans pleased and flattered them. They were of a people who better appreciate the amenities of life than its sacrifices.
The breakfast lasted far into the afternoon, and, inspired by the success of the banquet, Clay quite unexpectedly found himself on his feet with his hand on his heart, thanking the guests for the good-will and assistance which they had given him in his work. "I have tramped down your coffee plants, and cut away your forests, and disturbed your sleep with my engines, and you have not complained," he said, in his best Spanish, "and we will show that we are not ungrateful."
Then Weimer, the Consul, spoke, and told them that in his Annual Consular Report, which he had just forwarded to the State Department, he had related how ready the Government of Olancho had been to assist the American company. "And I hope," he concluded, "that you will allow me, gentlemen, to propose the health of President Alvarez and the members of his Cabinet."
The men rose to their feet, one by one, filling their glasses and laughing and saying, "Viva el Gobernador," until they were all standing. Then, as they looked at one another and saw only the faces of friends, some one of them cried, suddenly, "To President Alvarez, Dictator of Olancho!"
The cry was drowned in a yell of exultation, and men sprang cheering to their chairs waving their napkins above their heads, and those who wore swords drew them and flashed them in the air, and the quiet, lazy good-nature of the breakfast was turned into an uproarious scene of wild excitement. Clay pushed back his chair from the head of the table with an anxious look at the servants gathered about the open door, and Weimer clutched frantically at Langham's elbow and whispered, "What did I say? For heaven's sake, how did it begin?"
The outburst ceased as suddenly as it had started, and old General Rojas, the Vice-President, called out, "What is said is said, but it must not be repeated."
Stuart waited until after the rest had gone, and Clay led him out to the end of the veranda. "Now will you kindly tell me what that was?" Clay asked. "It didn't sound like champagne."
"No," said the other, "I thought you knew. Alvarez means to proclaim himself Dictator, if he can, before the spring elections."
"And are you going to help him?"
"Of course," said the Englishman, simply.
"Well, that's all right," said Clay, "but there's no use shouting the fact all over the shop like that—and they shouldn't drag me into it."
Stuart laughed easily and shook his head. "It won't be long before you'll be in it yourself," he said.
Clay awoke early Friday morning to hear the shutters beating viciously against the side of the house, and the wind rushing through the palms, and the rain beating in splashes on the zinc roof. It did not come soothingly and in a steady downpour, but brokenly, like the rush of waves sweeping over a rough beach. He turned on the pillow and shut his eyes again with the same impotent and rebellious sense of disappointment that he used to feel when he had wakened as a boy and found it storming on his holiday, and he tried to sleep once more in the hope that when he again awoke the sun would be shining in his eyes; but the storm only slackened and did not cease, and the rain continued to fall with dreary, relentless persistence. The men climbed the muddy road to the Palms, and viewed in silence the wreck which the night had brought to their plants and garden paths. Rivulets of muddy water had cut gutters over the lawn and poured out from under the veranda, and plants and palms lay bent and broken, with their broad leaves bedraggled and coated with mud. The harbor and the encircling mountains showed dimly through a curtain of warm, sticky rain. To something that Langham said of making the best of it, MacWilliams replied, gloomily, that he would not be at all surprised if the ladies refused to leave the ship and demanded to be taken home immediately. "I am sorry," Clay said, simply; "I wanted them to like it."
The men walked back to the office in grim silence, and took turns in watching with a glass the arms of the semaphore, three miles below, at the narrow opening of the bay. Clay smiled nervously at himself, with a sudden sinking at the heart, and with a hot blush of pleasure, as he thought of how often he had looked at its great arms out lined like a mast against the sky, and thanked it in advance for telling him that she was near. In the harbor below, the vessels lay with bare yards and empty decks, the wharves were deserted, and only an occasional small boat moved across the beaten surface of the bay.
But at twelve o'clock MacWilliams lowered the glass quickly, with a little gasp of excitement, rubbed its moist lens on the inside of his coat and turned it again toward a limp strip of bunting that was crawling slowly up the halyards of the semaphore. A second dripping rag answered it from the semaphore in front of the Custom-House, and MacWilliams laughed nervously and shut the glass.
"It's red," he said; "they've come."
They had planned to wear white duck suits, and go out in a launch with a flag flying, and they had made MacWilliams purchase a red cummerbund and a pith helmet; but they tumbled into the launch now, wet and bedraggled as they were, and raced Weimer in his boat, with the American flag clinging to the pole, to the side of the big steamer as she drew slowly into the bay. Other row-boats and launches and lighters began to push out from the wharves, men appeared under the sagging awnings of the bare houses along the river-front, and the custom and health officers in shining oil-skins and puffing damp cigars clambered over the side.
"I see them," cried Langham, jumping up and rocking the boat in his excitement. "There they are in the bow. That's Hope waving. Hope! hullo, Hope!" he shouted, "hullo!" Clay recognized her standing between the younger sister and her father, with the rain beating on all of them, and waving her hand to Langham. The men took off their hats, and as they pulled up alongside she bowed to Clay and nodded brightly. They sent Langham up the gangway first, and waited until he had made his greetings to his family alone.
"We have had a terrible trip, Mr. Clay," Miss Langham said to him, beginning, as people will, with the last few days, as though they were of the greatest importance; "and we could see nothing of you at the mines at all as we passed—only a wet flag, and a lot of very friendly workmen, who cheered and fired off pans of dynamite."
"They did, did they?" said Clay, with a satisfied nod. "That's all right, then. That was a royal salute in your honor. Kirkland had that to do. He's the foreman of A opening. I am awfully sorry about this rain—it spoils everything."
"I hope it hasn't spoiled our breakfast," said Mr. Langham. "We haven't eaten anything this morning, because we wanted a change of diet, and the captain told us we should be on shore before now."
"We have some carriages for you at the wharf, and we will drive you right out to the Palms," said young Langham. "It's shorter by water, but there's a hill that the girls couldn't climb today. That's the house we built for you, Governor, with the flag-pole, up there on the hill; and there's your ugly old pier; and that's where we live, in the little shack above it, with the tin roof; and that opening to the right is the terminus of the railroad MacWilliams built. Where's MacWilliams? Here, Mac, I want you to know my father. This is MacWilliams, sir, of whom I wrote you."
There was some delay about the baggage, and in getting the party together in the boats that Langham and the Consul had brought; and after they had stood for some time on the wet dock, hungry and damp, it was rather aggravating to find that the carriages which Langham had ordered to be at one pier had gone to another. So the new arrivals sat rather silently under the shed of the levee on a row of cotton-bales, while Clay and MacWilliams raced off after the carriages.
"I wish we didn't have to keep the hood down," young Langham said, anxiously, as they at last proceeded heavily up the muddy streets; "it makes it so hot, and you can't see anything. Not that it's worth seeing in all this mud and muck, but it's great when the sun shines. We had planned it all so differently."
He was alone with his family now in one carriage, and the other men and the servants were before them in two others. It seemed an interminable ride to them all—to the strangers, and to the men who were anxious that they should be pleased. They left the city at last, and toiled along the limestone road to the Palms, rocking from side to side and sinking in ruts filled with rushing water. When they opened the flap of the hood the rain beat in on them, and when they closed it they stewed in a damp, warm atmosphere of wet leather and horse-hair.
"This is worse than a Turkish bath," said Hope, faintly. "Don't you live anywhere, Ted?"
"Oh, it's not far now," said the younger brother, dismally; but even as he spoke the carriage lurched forward and plunged to one side and came to a halt, and they could hear the streams rushing past the wheels like the water at the bow of a boat. A wet, black face appeared at the opening of the hood, and a man spoke despondently in Spanish.
"He says we're stuck in the mud," explained Langham. He looked at them so beseechingly and so pitifully, with the perspiration streaming down his face, and his clothes damp and bedraggled, that Hope leaned back and laughed, and his father patted him on the knee. "It can't be any worse," he said, cheerfully; "it must mend now. It is not your fault, Ted, that we're starving and lost in the mud."
Langham looked out to find Clay and MacWilliams knee-deep in the running water, with their shoulders against the muddy wheels, and the driver lashing at the horses and dragging at their bridles. He sprang out to their assistance, and Hope, shaking off her sister's detaining hands, jumped out after him, laughing. She splashed up the hill to the horses' heads, motioning to the driver to release his hold on their bridles.
"That is not the way to treat a horse," she said. "Let me have them. Are you men all ready down there?" she called. Each of the three men glued a shoulder to a wheel, and clenched his teeth and nodded. "All right, then," Hope called back. She took hold of the huge Mexican bits close to the mouth, where the pressure was not so cruel, and then coaxing and tugging by turns, and slipping as often as the horses themselves, she drew them out of the mud, and with the help of the men back of the carriage pulled it clear until it stood free again at the top of the hill. Then she released her hold on the bridles and looked down, in dismay, at her frock and hands, and then up at the three men. They appeared so utterly miserable and forlorn in their muddy garments, and with their faces washed with the rain and perspiration, that the girl gave way suddenly to an uncontrollable shriek of delight. The men stared blankly at her for a moment, and then inquiringly at one another, and as the humor of the situation struck them they burst into an echoing shout of laughter, which rose above the noise of the wind and rain, and before which the disappointments and trials of the morning were swept away. Before they reached the Palms the sun was out and shining with fierce brilliancy, reflecting its rays on every damp leaf, and drinking up each glistening pool of water.
MacWilliams and Clay left the Langhams alone together, and returned to the office, where they assured each other again and again that there was no doubt, from what each had heard different members of the family say, that they were greatly pleased with all that had been prepared for them.
"They think it's fine!" said young Langham, who had run down the hill to tell them about it. "I tell you, they are pleased. I took them all over the house, and they just exclaimed every minute. Of course," he said, dispassionately, "I thought they'd like it, but I had no idea it would please them as much as it has. My Governor is so delighted with the place that he's sitting out there on the veranda now, rocking himself up and down and taking long breaths of sea-air, just as though he owned the whole coast-line."