The drum-beat of the rain followed him down the staircase, but he shut it out with his other thoughts, when he again closed the door of his office. He set diligently to work by the declining winter light, until he was interrupted by the entrance of his Chinese waiter to tell him that supper—which was the meal that Mulrady religiously adhered to in place of the late dinner of civilization—was ready in the dining-room. Mulrady mechanically obeyed the summons; but on entering the room the oasis of a few plates in a desert of white table-cloth which awaited him made him hesitate. In its best aspect, the high dark Gothic mahogany ecclesiastical sideboard and chairs of this room, which looked like the appointments of a mortuary chapel, were not exhilarating; and to- day, in the light of the rain-filmed windows and the feeble rays of a lamp half-obscured by the dark shining walls, it was most depressing.
“You kin take up supper into my office,” said Mulrady, with a sudden inspiration. “I’ll eat it there.”
He ate it there, with his usual healthy appetite, which did not require even the stimulation of company. He had just finished, when his Irish cook—the one female servant of the house—came to ask permission to be absent that evening and the next day.
“I suppose the likes of your honor won’t be at home on the Christmas Day? And it’s me cousins from the old counthry at Rough-and-Ready that are invitin’ me.”
“Why don’t you ask them over here?” said Mulrady, with another vague inspiration. “I’ll stand treat.”
“Lord preserve you for a jinerous gintleman! But it’s the likes of them and myself that wouldn’t be at home here on such a day.”
There was so much truth in this that Mulrady checked a sigh as he gave the required permission, without saying that he had intended to remain. He could cook his own breakfast: he had done it before; and it would be something to occupy him. As to his dinner, perhaps he could go to the hotel at Rough-and-Ready. He worked on until the night had well advanced. Then, overcome with a certain restlessness that disturbed him, he was forced to put his books and papers away. It had begun to blow in fitful gusts, and occasionally the rain was driven softly across the panes like the passing of childish fingers. This disturbed him more than the monotony of silence, for he was not a nervous man. He seldom read a book, and the county paper furnished him only the financial and mercantile news which was part of his business. He knew he could not sleep if he went to bed. At last he rose, opened the window, and looked out from pure idleness of occupation. A splash of wheels in the distant muddy road and fragments of a drunken song showed signs of an early wandering reveller. There were no lights to be seen at the closed works; a profound darkness encompassed the house, as if the distant pines in the hollow had moved up and round it. The silence was broken now only by the occasional sighing of wind and rain. It was not an inviting night for a perfunctory walk; but an idea struck him—he would call upon the Slinns, and anticipate his next day’s visit! They would probably have company, and be glad to see him: he could tell the girls of Mamie and her success. That he had not thought of this before was a proof of his usual self-contained isolation, that he thought of it now was an equal proof that he was becoming at last accessible to loneliness. He was angry with himself for what seemed to him a selfish weakness.
He returned to his office, and, putting the envelope that had been lying on Slinn’s desk in his pocket, threw a serape over his shoulders, and locked the front door of the house behind him. It was well that the way was a familiar one to him, and that his feet instinctively found the trail, for the night was very dark. At times he was warned only by the gurgling of water of little rivulets that descended the hill and crossed his path. Without the slightest fear, and with neither imagination nor sensitiveness, he recalled how, the winter before, one of Don Cæsar’s vaqueros, crossing this hill at night, had fallen down the chasm of a landslip caused by the rain, and was found the next morning with his neck broken in the gully. Don Cæsar had to take care of the man’s family. Suppose such an accident should happen to him? Well, he had made his will. His wife and children would be provided for, and the work of the mine would go on all the same; he had arranged for that. Would anybody miss him? Would his wife, or his son, or his daughter? No. He felt such a sudden and overwhelming conviction of the truth of this that he stopped as suddenly as if the chasm had opened before him. No! It was the truth. If he were to disappear forever in the darkness of the Christmas night there was none to feel his loss. His wife would take care of Mamie; his son would take care of himself, as he had before—relieved of even the scant paternal authority he rebelled against. A more imaginative man than Mulrady would have combated or have followed out this idea, and then dismissed it; to the millionaire’s matter-of-fact mind it was a deduction that, having once presented itself to his perception, was already a recognized fact. For the first time in his life he felt a sudden instinct of something like aversion towards his family, a feeling that even his son’s dissipation and criminality had never provoked. He hurried on angrily through the darkness.
It was very strange; the old house should be almost before him now, across the hollow, yet there were no indications of light! It was not until he actually reached the garden fence, and the black bulk of shadow rose out against the sky, that he saw a faint ray of light from one of the lean-to windows. He went to the front door and knocked. After waiting in vain for a reply, he knocked again. The second knock proving equally futile, he tried the door; it was unlocked, and, pushing it open, he walked in. The narrow passage was quite dark, but from his knowledge of the house he knew the “lean-to” was next to the kitchen, and, passing through the dining- room into it, he opened the door of the little room from which the light proceeded. It came from a single candle on a small table, and beside it, with his eyes moodily fixed on the dying embers of the fire, sat old Slinn. There was no other light nor another human being in the whole house.
For the instant Mulrady, forgetting his own feelings in the mute picture of the utter desolation of the helpless man, remained speechless on the threshold. Then, recalling himself, he stepped forward and laid his hand gayly on the bowed shoulders.
“Rouse up out o’ this, old man! Come! this won’t do. Look! I’ve run over here in the rain, jist to have a sociable time with you all.”
“I knew it,” said the old man, without looking up; “I knew you’d come.”
“You knew I’d come?” echoed Mulrady, with an uneasy return of the strange feeling of awe with which he regarded Slinn’s abstraction.
“Yes; you were alone—like myself—all alone!”
“Then, why in thunder didn’t you open the door or sing out just now?” he said, with an affected brusquerie to cover his uneasiness. “Where’s your daughters?”
“Gone to Rough-and-Ready to a party.”
“And your son?”
“He never comes here when he can amuse himself elsewhere.”
“Your children might have stayed home on Christmas Eve.”
“So might yours.”
He didn’t say this impatiently, but with a certain abstracted conviction far beyond any suggestion of its being a retort. Mulrady did not appear to notice it.
“Well, I don’t see why us old folks can’t enjoy ourselves without them,” said Mulrady, with affected cheerfulness. “Let’s have a good time, you and me. Let’s see—you haven’t any one you can send to my house, hev you?”
“They took the servant with them,” said Slinn, briefly. “There is no one here.”
“All right,” said the millionaire, briskly. “I’ll go myself. Do you think you can manage to light up a little more, and build a fire in the kitchen while I’m gone? It used to be mighty comfortable in the old times.”
He helped the old man to rise from his chair, and seemed to have infused into him some of his own energy. He then added, “Now, don’t you get yourself down again into that chair until I come back,” and darted out into the night once more.
In a quarter of an hour he returned with a bag on his broad shoulders, which one of his porters would have shrunk from lifting, and laid it before the blazing hearth of the now lighted kitchen. “It’s something the old woman got for her party, that didn’t come off,” he said, apologetically. “I reckon we can pick out enough for a spread. That darned Chinaman wouldn’t come with me,” he added, with a laugh, “because, he said, he’d knocked off work ’allee same, Mellican man!’ Look here, Slinn,” he said, with a sudden decisiveness, “my pay-roll of the men around here don’t run short of a hundred and fifty dollars a day, and yet I couldn’t get a hand to help me bring this truck over for my Christmas dinner.”
“Of course,” said Slinn, gloomily.
“Of course; so it oughter be,” returned Mulrady, shortly. “Why, it’s only their one day out of 364; and I can have 363 days off, as I am their boss. I don’t mind a man’s being independent,” he continued, taking off his coat and beginning to unpack his sack—a common “gunny bag”—used for potatoes. “We’re independent ourselves, ain’t we, Slinn?”
His good spirits, which had been at first labored and affected, had become natural. Slinn, looking at his brightened eye and fresher color, could not help thinking he was more like his own real self at this moment than in his counting-house and offices—with all his simplicity as a capitalist. A less abstracted and more observant critic than Slinn would have seen in this patient aptitude for real work, and the recognition of the force of petty detail, the dominance of the old market-gardener in his former humble, as well as his later more ambitious, successes.
“Heaven keep us from being dependent upon our children!” said Slinn, darkly.
“Let the young ones alone to-night; we can get along without them, as they can without us,” said Mulrady, with a slight twinge as he thought of his reflections on the hillside. “But look here, there’s some champagne and them sweet cordials that women like; there’s jellies and such like stuff, about as good as they make ’em, I reckon; and preserves, and tongues, and spiced beef—take your pick! Stop, let’s spread them out.” He dragged the table to the middle of the floor, and piled the provisions upon it. They certainly were not deficient in quality or quantity. “Now, Slinn, wade in.”
“I don’t feel hungry,” said the invalid, who had lapsed again into a chair before the fire.
“No more do I,” said Mulrady; “but I reckon it’s the right thing to do about this time. Some folks think they can’t be happy without they’re getting outside o’ suthin’, and my directors down at ’Frisco can’t do any business without a dinner. Take some champagne, to begin with.”
He opened a bottle, and filled two tumblers. “It’s past twelve o’clock, old man, so here’s a merry Christmas to you, and both of us ez is here. And here’s another to our families—ez isn’t.”
They both drank their wine stolidly. The rain beat against the windows sharply, but without the hollow echoes of the house on the hill. “I must write to the old woman and Mamie, and say that you and me had a high old time on Christmas Eve.”
“By ourselves,” added the invalid.
Mr. Mulrady coughed. “Nat’rally—by ourselves. And her provisions,” he added, with a laugh. “We’re really beholden to her for ’em. If she hadn’t thought of having them—”
“For somebody else, you wouldn’t have had them—would you?” said Slinn, slowly, gazing at the fire.
“No,” said Mulrady, dubiously. After a pause he began more vivaciously, and as if to shake off some disagreeable thought that was impressing him, “But I mustn’t forget to give you your Christmas, old man, and I’ve got it right here with me.” He took the folded envelope from his pocket, and, holding it in his hand with his elbow on the table, continued, “I don’t mind telling you what idea I had in giving you what I’m goin’ to give you now. I’ve been thinking about it for a day or two. A man like you don’t want money—you wouldn’t spend it. A man like you don’t want stocks or fancy investments, for you couldn’t look after them. A man like you don’t want diamonds and jewellery, nor a gold-headed cane, when it’s got to be used as a crutch. No, sir. What you want is suthin’ that won’t run away from you; that is always there before you and won’t wear out, and will last after you’re gone. That’s land! And if it wasn’t that I have sworn never to sell or give away this house and that garden, if it wasn’t that I’ve held out agin the old woman and Mamie on that point, you should have this house and that garden. But, mebbee, for the same reason that I’ve told you, I want that land to keep for myself. But I’ve selected four acres of the hill this side of my shaft, and here’s the deed of it. As soon as you’re ready, I’ll put you up a house as big as this—that shall be yours, with the land, as long as you live, old man; and after that your children’s.”
“No; not theirs!” broke in the old man, passionately. “Never!”
Mulrady recoiled for an instant in alarm at the sudden and unexpected vehemence of his manner, “Go slow, old man; go slow,” he said, soothingly. “Of course, you’ll do with your own as you like.” Then, as if changing the subject, he went on cheerfully: “Perhaps you’ll wonder why I picked out that spot on the hillside. Well, first, because I reserved it after my strike in case the lead should run that way, but it didn’t. Next, because when you first came here you seemed to like the prospect. You used to sit there looking at it, as if it reminded you of something. You never said it did. They say you was sitting on that boulder there when you had that last attack, you know; but,” he added, gently, “you’ve forgotten all about it.”
“I have forgotten nothing,” said Slinn, rising, with a choking voice. “I wish to God I had; I wish to God I could!”
He was on his feet now, supporting himself by the table. The subtle generous liquor he had drunk had evidently shaken his self-control, and burst those voluntary bonds he had put upon himself for the last six months; the insidious stimulant had also put a strange vigor into his blood and nerves. His face was flushed, but not distorted; his eyes were brilliant, but not fixed; he looked as he might have looked to Masters in his strength three years before on that very hillside.
“Listen to me, Alvin Mulrady,” he said, leaning over him with burning eyes. “Listen, while I have brain to think and strength to utter, why I have learnt to distrust, fear, and hate them! You think you know my story. Well, hear the truth from me to-night, Alvin Mulrady, and do not wonder if I have cause.”
He stopped, and, with pathetic inefficiency, passed the fingers and inward-turned thumb of his paralyzed hand across his mouth, as if to calm himself. “Three years ago I was a miner, but not a miner like you! I had experience, I had scientific knowledge, I had a theory, and the patience and energy to carry it out. I selected a spot that had all the indications, made a tunnel, and, without aid, counsel or assistance of any kind, worked it for six months, without rest or cessation, and with scarcely food enough to sustain my body. Well, I made a strike; not like you, Mulrady, not a blunder of good luck, a fool’s fortune—there, I don’t blame you for it—but in perfect demonstration of my theory, the reward of my labor. It was no pocket, but a vein, a lead, that I had regularly hunted down and found—a fortune!
“I never knew how hard I had worked until that morning; I never knew what privations I had undergone until that moment of my success, when I found I could scarcely think or move! I staggered out into the open air. The only human soul near me was a disappointed prospector, a man named Masters, who had a tunnel not far away. I managed to conceal from him my good fortune and my feeble state, for I was suspicious of him—of any one; and as he was going away that day I thought I could keep my secret until he was gone. I was dizzy and confused, but I remember that I managed to write a letter to my wife, telling her of my good fortune, and begging her to come to me; and I remember that I saw Masters go. I don’t remember anything else. They picked me up on the road, near that boulder, as you know.”
“I know,” said Mulrady, with a swift recollection of the stage-driver’s account of his discovery.
“They say,” continued Slinn, tremblingly, “that I never recovered my senses or consciousness for nearly three years; they say I lost my memory completely during my illness, and that by God’s mercy, while I lay in that hospital, I knew no more than a babe; they say, because I could not speak or move, and only had my food as nature required it, that I was an imbecile, and that I never really came to my senses until after my son found me in the hospital. They say that—but I tell you to-night, Alvin Mulrady,” he said, raising his voice to a hoarse outcry, “I tell you that it is a lie! I came to my senses a week after I lay on that hospital cot; I kept my senses and memory ever after during the three years that I was there, until Harry brought his cold, hypocritical face to my bedside and recognized me. Do you understand? I, the possessor of millions, lay there a pauper. Deserted by wife and children—a spectacle for the curious, a sport for the doctors—and I knew it! I heard them speculate on the cause of my helplessness. I heard them talk of excesses and indulgences—I, that never knew wine or woman! I heard a preacher speak of the finger of God, and point to me. May God curse him!”
“Go slow, old man; go slow,” said Mulrady, gently.
“I heard them speak of me as a friendless man, an outcast, a criminal—a being whom no one would claim. They were right; no one claimed me. The friends of others visited them; relations came and took away their kindred; a few lucky ones got well; a few, equally lucky, died! I alone lived on, uncared for, deserted.
“The first year,” he went on more rapidly, “I prayed for their coming. I looked for them every day. I never lost hope. I said to myself, ‘She has not got my letter; but when the time passes she will be alarmed by my silence, and then she will come or send some one to seek me.’ A young student got interested in my case, and, by studying my eyes, thought that I was not entirely imbecile and unconscious. With the aid of an alphabet, he got me to spell my name and town in Illinois, and promised by signs to write to my family. But in an evil moment I told him of my cursed fortune, and in that moment I saw that he thought me a fool and an idiot. He went away, and I saw him no more. Yet I still hoped. I dreamed of their joy at finding me, and the reward that my wealth would give them. Perhaps I was a little weak still, perhaps a little flighty, too, at times; but I was quite happy that year, even in my disappointment, for I had still hope!”
He paused, and again composed his face with his paralyzed hand; but his manner had become less excited, and his voice was stronger.
“A change must have come over me the second year, for I only dreaded their coming now and finding me so altered. A horrible idea that they might, like the student, believe me crazy if I spoke of my fortune made me pray to God that they might not reach me until after I had regained my health and strength—and found my fortune. When the third year found me still there—I no longer prayed for them—I cursed them! I swore to myself that they should never enjoy my wealth; but I wanted to live, and let them know I had it. I found myself getting stronger; but as I had no money, no friends, and nowhere to go, I concealed my real condition from the doctors, except to give them my name, and to try to get some little work to do to enable me to leave the hospital and seek my lost treasure. One day I found out by accident that it had been discovered! You understand—my treasure!—that had cost me years of labor and my reason; had left me a helpless, forgotten pauper. That gold I had never enjoyed had been found and taken possession of by another!”
He checked an exclamation from Mulrady with his hand. “They say they picked me up senseless from the floor, where I must have fallen when I heard the news—I don’t remember—I recall nothing until I was confronted, nearly three weeks after, by my son, who had called at the hospital, as a reporter for a paper, and had accidentally discovered me through my name and appearance. He thought me crazy, or a fool. I didn’t undeceive him. I did not tell him the story of the mine to excite his doubts and derision, or, worse (if I could bring proof to claim it), have it perhaps pass into his ungrateful hands. No; I said nothing. I let him bring me here. He could do no less, and common decency obliged him to do that.”
“And what proof could you show of your claim?” asked Mulrady, gravely.
“If I had that letter—if I could find Masters,” began Slinn, vaguely.
“Have you any idea where the letter is, or what has become of Masters?” continued Mulrady, with a matter-of-fact gravity, that seemed to increase Slinn’s vagueness and excite his irritability.
“I don’t know—I sometimes think—” He stopped, sat down again, and passed his hands across his forehead. “I have seen the letter somewhere since. Yes,” he went on, with sudden vehemence, “I know it, I have seen it! I—” His brows knitted, his features began to work convulsively; he suddenly brought his paralyzed hand down, partly opened, upon the table. “I will remember where.”
“Go slow, old man; go slow.”
“You asked me once about my visions. Well, that is one of them. I remember a man somewhere showing me that letter. I have taken it from his hands and opened it, and knew it was mine by the specimens of gold that were in it. But where—or when—or what became of it, I cannot tell. It will come to me—it must come to me soon.”
He turned his eyes upon Mulrady, who was regarding him with an expression of grave curiosity, and said bitterly, “You think me crazy. I know it. It needed only this.”
“Where is this mine,” asked Mulrady, without heeding him.
The old man’s eyes swiftly sought the ground.
“It is a secret, then?”
“You have spoken of it to any one?”
“Not to the man who possesses it?”
“Because I wouldn’t take it from him.”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because that man is yourself!”
In the instant of complete silence that followed they could hear that the monotonous patter of rain on the roof had ceased.
“Then all this was in my shaft, and the vein I thought I struck there was your lead, found three years ago in your tunnel. Is that your idea?”
“Then I don’t sabe why you don’t want to claim it.”
“I have told you why I don’t want it for my children. I go further, now, and I tell you, Alvin Mulrady, that I was willing that your children should squander it, as they were doing. It has only been a curse to me; it could only be a curse to them; but I thought you were happy in seeing it feed selfishness and vanity. You think me bitter and hard. Well, I should have left you in your fool’s paradise, but that I saw to-night, when you came here, that your eyes had been opened like mine. You, the possessor of my wealth, my treasure, could not buy your children’s loving care and company with your millions, any more than I could keep mine in my poverty. You were to-night lonely and forsaken, as I was. We were equal, for the first time in our lives. If that cursed gold had dropped down the shaft between us into the hell from which it sprang, we might have clasped hands like brothers across the chasm.”
Mulrady, who in a friendly show of being at his ease had not yet resumed his coat, rose in his shirt-sleeves, and, standing before the hearth, straightened his square figure by drawing down his waistcoat on each side with two powerful thumbs. After a moment’s contemplative survey of the floor between him and the speaker, he raised his eyes to Slinn. They were small and colorless; the forehead above them was low, and crowned with a shock of tawny reddish hair; even the rude strength of his lower features was enfeebled by a long, straggling, goat-like beard; but for the first time in his life the whole face was impressed and transformed with a strong and simple dignity.
“Ez far ez I kin see, Slinn,” he said, gravely, “the pint between you and me ain’t to be settled by our children, or wot we allow is doo and right from them to us. Afore we preach at them for playing in the slumgullion, and gettin’ themselves splashed, perhaps we mout ez well remember that that thar slumgullion comes from our own sluice-boxes, where we wash our gold. So we’ll just put them behind us, so,” he continued, with a backward sweep of his powerful hand towards the chimney, “and goes on. The next thing that crops up ahead of us is your three years in the hospital, and wot you went through at that time. I ain’t sayin’ it wasn’t rough on you, and that you didn’t have it about as big as it’s made; but ez you’ll allow that you’d hev had that for three years, whether I’d found your mine or whether I hadn’t, I think we can put that behind us, too. There’s nothin’ now left to prospect but your story of your strike. Well, take your own proofs. Masters is not here; and if he was, accordin’ to your own story, he knows nothin’ of your strike that day, and could only prove you were a disappointed prospector in a tunnel; your letter—that the person you wrote to never got—you can’t produce; and if you did, would be only your own story without proof! There is not a business man ez would look at your claim; there isn’t a friend of yours that wouldn’t believe you were crazy, and dreamed it all; there isn’t a rival of yours ez wouldn’t say ez you’d invented it. Slinn, I’m a business man—I am your friend—I am your rival—but I don’t think you’re lyin’—I don’t think you’re crazy—and I’m not sure your claim ain’t a good one!
“Ef you reckon from that that I’m goin’ to hand you over the mine to-morrow,” he went on, after a pause, raising his hand with a deprecating gesture, “you’re mistaken. For your own sake, and the sake of my wife and children, you’ve got to prove it more clearly than you hev; but I promise you that from this night forward I will spare neither time nor money to help you to do it. I have more than doubled the amount that you would have had, had you taken the mine the day you came from the hospital. When you prove to me that your story is true—and we will find some way to prove it, if it is true—that amount will be yours at once, without the need of a word from law or lawyers. If you want my name to that in black and white, come to the office to-morrow, and you shall have it.”
“And you think I’ll take it now?” said the old man passionately. “Do you think that your charity will bring back my dead wife, the three years of my lost life, the love and respect of my children? Or do you think that your own wife and children, who deserted you in your wealth, will come back to you in your poverty? No! Let the mine stay, with its curse, where it is—I’ll have none of it!”
“Go slow, old man; go slow,” said Mulrady, quietly, putting on his coat. “You will take the mine if it is yours; if it isn’t, I’ll keep it. If it is yours, you will give your children a chance to sho what they can do for you in your sudden prosperity, as I shall give mine a chance to show how they can stand reverse and disappointment. If my head is level—and I reckon it is—they’ll both pan out all right.”
He turned and opened the door. With a quick revulsion of feeling, Slinn suddenly seized Mulrady’s hand between both of his own, and raised it to his lips. Mulrady smiled, disengaged his hand gently, and saying soothingly, “Go slow, old man; go slow,” closed the door behind him, and passed out into the clear Christmas dawn.
For the stars, with the exception of one that seemed to sparkle brightly over the shaft of his former fortunes, were slowly paling. A burden seemed to have fallen from his square shoulders as he stepped out sturdily into the morning air. He had already forgotten the lonely man behind him, for he was thinking only of his wife and daughter. And at the same moment they were thinking of him; and in their elaborate villa overlooking the blue Mediterranean at Cannes were discussing, in the event of Mamie’s marriage with Prince Rosso e Negro, the possibility of Mr. Mulrady’s paying two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the gambling debts of that unfortunate but deeply conscientious nobleman.