A few days after the girls had returned to San Francisco, they received a letter from their father. His business, he wrote, would detain him in Sacramento some days longer. There was no reason why they should return to Devil's Ford in the heat of the summer; their host had written to beg him to allow them a more extended visit, and, if they were enjoying themselves, he thought it would be well not to disoblige an old friend. He had heard they had a pleasant visit to Mr. Prince's place, and that a certain young banker had been very attentive to Christie.
"Do you know what all this means, dear?" asked Jessie, who had been watching her sister with an unusually grave face.
Christie whose thoughts had wandered from the letter, replied carelessly,--
"I suppose it means that we are to wait here until father sends for us."
"It means a good deal more. It means that papa has had another reverse; it means that the assay has turned out badly for the mine-- that the further they go from the flat the worse it gets--that all the gold they will probably ever see at Devil's Ford is what they have already found or will find on the flat; it means that all Devil's Ford is only a 'pocket,' and not a 'lead.'" She stopped, with unexpected tears in her eyes.
"Who told you this?" asked Christie breathlessly.
"Fairfax--Mr. Munroe," stammered her sister, "writes to me as if we already knew it--tells me not to be alarmed, that it isn't so bad-- and all that."
"How long has this happened, Jessie?" said Christie, taking her hand, with a white but calm face.
"Nearly ever since we've been here, I suppose. It must be so, for he says poor papa is still hopeful of doing something yet."
"And Mr. Munroe writes to you?" said Christie abstractedly.
"Of course," said Jessie quickly. "He feels interested in--us."
"Nobody tells me anything," said Christie.
"No," said Christie bitterly.
"What on earth did you talk about? But people don't confide in you because they're afraid of you. You're so--"
"So gently patronizing, and so 'I-don't-suppose-you-can-help-it,- poor-thing,' in your general style," said Jessie, kissing her. "There! I only wish I was like you. What do you say if we write to father that we'll go back to Devil's Ford? Mr. Munroe thinks we will be of service there just now. If the men are dissatisfied, and think we're spending money--"
"I'm afraid Mr. Munroe is hardly a disinterested adviser. At least, I don't think it would look quite decent for you to fly back without your father, at his suggestion," said Christie coldly. "He is not the only partner. We are spending no money. Besides, we have engaged to go to Mr. Prince's again next week."
"As you like, dear," said Jessie, turning away to hide a faint smile.
Nevertheless, when they returned from their visit to Mr. Prince's, and one or two uneventful rides, Christie looked grave. It was only a few days later that Jessie burst upon her one morning.
"You were saying that nobody ever tells you anything. Well, here's your chance. Whiskey Dick is below."
"Whiskey Dick?" repeated Christie. "What does he want?"
"You, love. Who else? You know he always scorns me as not being high-toned and elegant enough for his social confidences. He asked for you only."
With an uneasy sense of some impending revelation, Christie descended to the drawing-room. As she opened the door, a strong flavor of that toilet soap and eau de Cologne with which Whiskey Dick was in the habit of gracefully effacing the traces of dissipation made known his presence. In spite of a new suit of clothes, whose pristine folds refused to adapt themselves entirely to the contour of his figure, he was somewhat subdued by the unexpected elegance of the drawing-room of Christie's host. But a glance at Christie's sad but gracious face quickly reassured him. Taking from his hat a three-cornered parcel, he unfolded a handsome saffrona rose, which he gravely presented to her. Having thus reestablished his position, he sank elegantly into a tete-a-tete ottoman. Finding the position inconvenient to face Christie, who had seated herself on a chair, he transferred himself to the other side of the ottoman, and addressed her over its back as from a pulpit.
"Is this really a fortunate accident, Mr. Hall, or did you try to find us?" said Christie pleasantly.
"Partly promiskuss, and partly coincident, Miss Christie, one up and t'other down," said Dick lightly. "Work being slack at present at Devil's Ford, I reck'ned I'd take a pasear down to 'Frisco, and dip into the vortex o' fash'nable society and out again." He lightly waved a new handkerchief to illustrate his swallow-like intrusion. "This yer minglin' with the bo-tong is apt to be wearisome, ez you and me knows, unless combined with experience and judgment. So when them boys up there allows that there's a little too much fash'nable society and San Francisco capital and high- falutin' about the future goin' on fer square surface mining, I sez, 'Look yere, gentlemen,' sez I, 'you don't see the pint. The pint is to get the pop'lar eye fixed, so to speak, on Devil's Ford. When a fash'nable star rises above the 'Frisco horizon--like Miss Carr--and, so to speak, dazzles the gineral eye, people want to know who she is. And when people say that's the accomplished daughter o' the accomplished superintendent of the Devil's Ford claim--otherwise known as the Star-eyed Goddess o' Devil's Ford-- every eye is fixed on the mine, and Capital, so to speak, tumbles to her.' And when they sez that the old man--excuse my freedom, but that's the way the boys talk of your father, meaning no harm-- the old man, instead o' trying to corral rich widders--grass or otherwise--to spend their money on the big works for the gold that ain't there yet--should stay in Devil's Ford and put all his sabe and genius into grindin' out the little gold that is there, I sez to them that it ain't your father's style. 'His style,' sez I, 'ez to go in and build them works.' When they're done he turns round to Capital, and sez he--'Look yer,' sez he, 'thar's all the works you want, first quality--cost a million; thar's all the water you want, onlimited--cost another million; thar's all the pay gravel you want in and outer the ground--call it two millions more. Now my time's too vally'ble; my professhun's too high-toned to work mines. I make 'em. Hand me over a check for ten millions and call it square, and work it for yourself.' So Capital hands over the money and waltzes down to run the mine, and you original locators walks round with yer hands in yer pockets a-top of your six million profit, and you let's Capital take the work and the responsibility."
Preposterous as this seemed from the lips of Whiskey Dick, Christie had a haunting suspicion that it was not greatly unlike the theories expounded by the clever young banker who had been her escort. She did not interrupt his flow of reminiscent criticism; when he paused for breath, she said, quietly:
"I met Mr. George Kearney the other day in the country."
Whiskey Dick stopped awkwardly, glanced hurriedly at Christie, and coughed behind his handkerchief.
"Mr. Kearney--eh--er--certengly--yes--er--met him, you say. Was he--er--er--well?"
"In health, yes; but otherwise he has lost everything," said Christie, fixing her eyes on the embarrassed Dick.
"Yes--er--in course--in course--" continued Dick, nervously glancing round the apartment as if endeavoring to find an opening to some less abrupt statement of the fact.
"And actually reduced to take some menial employment," added Christie, still regarding Dick with her clear glance.
"That's it--that's just it," said Dick, beaming as he suddenly found his delicate and confidential opportunity. "That's it, Miss Christie; that's just what I was sayin' to the boys. 'Ez it the square thing,' sez I, 'jest because George hez happened to hypothecate every dollar he has, or expects to hev, to put into them works, only to please Mr. Carr, and just because he don't want to distress that intelligent gentleman by letting him see he's dead broke--for him to go and demean himself and Devil's Ford by rushing away and hiring out as a Mexican vaquero on Mexican wages? Look,' sez I, 'at the disgrace he brings upon a high-toned, fash'nable girl, at whose side he's walked and danced, and passed rings, and sentiments, and bokays in the changes o' the cotillion and the mizzourka. And wot,' sez I, 'if some day, prancing along in a fash'nable cavalcade, she all of a suddents comes across him drivin' a Mexican steer?' That's what I said to the boys. And so you met him, Miss Christie, as usual," continued Dick, endeavoring under the appearance of a large social experience to conceal an eager anxiety to know the details--"so you met him; and, in course, you didn't let on yer knew him, so to speak, nat'rally, or p'raps you kinder like asked him to fix your saddle-girth, and give him a five-dollar piece--eh?"
Christie, who had risen and gone to the window, suddenly turned a very pale face and shining eyes on Dick.
"Mr. Hall," she said, with a faint attempt at a smile, "we are old friends, and I feel I can ask you a favor. You once before acted as our escort--it was for a short but a happy time--will you accept a larger trust? My father is busy in Sacramento for the mine: will you, without saying anything to anybody, take Jessie and me back at once to Devil's Ford?"
"Will I? Miss Christie," said Dick, choking between an intense gratification and a desire to keep back its vulgar exhibition, "I shall be proud!"
"When I say keep it a secret"--she hesitated--"I don't mean that I object to your letting Mr. Kearney, if you happen to know where he is, understand that we are going back to Devil's Ford."
"Cert'nly--nat'rally," said Dick, waving his hand gracefully; "sorter drop him a line, saying that bizness of a social and delicate nature--being the escort of Miss Christie and Jessie Carr to Devil's Ford--prevents my having the pleasure of calling."
"That will do very well, Mr. Hall," said Christie, faintly smiling through her moist eyelashes. "Then will you go at once and secure tickets for to-night's boat, and bring them here? Jessie and I will arrange everything else."
"Cert'nly," said Dick impulsively, and preparing to take a graceful leave.
"We'll be impatient until you return with the tickets," said Christie graciously.
Dick shook hands gravely, got as far as the door, and paused.
"You think it better to take the tickets now?" he said dubiously.
"By all means," said Christie impetuously. "I've set my heart on going to-night--and unless you secure berths early--"
"In course--in course," interrupted Dick nervously. "But--"
"But what?" said Christie impatiently.
Dick hesitated, shut the door carefully, and, looking round the room, lightly shook out his handkerchief, apparently flicked away an embarrassing suggestion, and said, with a little laugh:
"It's ridiklous, perfectly ridiklous, Miss Christie; but not bein' in the habit of carryin' ready money, and havin' omitted to cash a draft on Wells, Fargo & Co.--"
"Of course," said Christie rapidly. "How forgetful I am! Pray forgive me, Mr. Hall. I didn't think. I'll run up and get it from our host; he will be glad to be our banker."
"One moment, Miss Christie," said Dick lightly, as his thumb and finger relaxed in his waistcoat pocket over the only piece of money in the world that had remained to him after his extravagant purchase of Christie's saffrona rose, "one moment: in this yer monetary transaction, if you like, you are at liberty to use my name."