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Chapter 32

MR. PERCIVAL'S PROPOSAL


One morning, after writing several letters for his employer, the young secretary asked Mr. Percival if he had any further commands.

The old gentleman answered thoughtfully:

"I have been thinking of asking you to do me an unusual service."

"I shall be very glad to serve you in any way, Mr. Percival," said Frank, promptly.

"I have no doubt of it," said the old gentleman, kindly. "I have observed your willingness to undertake any duty, and, still more, your disposition to perform it thoroughly. In this particular case, however, I have been considering whether a boy of your age would be competent to do what I desire."

Frank was not self-distrustful, neither was he over-confident. He was naturally energetic and ambitious to distinguish himself, and not afraid to undertake any difficult task.

"Will you try me, Mr. Percival?" he said. "I will do my best to succeed."

"I am quite inclined to try you, Frank," said Mr. Percival; "the more so because I know of no one else in whom I could confide. But I must give you an idea of what I have in view. It would require you to make a journey."

Frank listened to this gladly. To a boy of his age, who had seen but little of the world, a journey offered attractions.

"I should like to travel," he said.

"I have no doubt about that," said Mr. Percival, smiling. "At your age I am sure I should have been equally willing to see something of the world, though traveling involved at that time far more hardships than at present. Now, however, I like best to stay by the fireside, and should dread very much a journey to Minnesota."

"To Minnesota!" exclaimed Frank, with sparkling eyes.

He had not thought of a journey so extended.

"Yes; it would be necessary for you to go out to Minnesota. Ordinarily, a man can best look after his own affairs; but in the present instance, I suspect that you could do better than myself. I don't mean this as a compliment, but a boy like you would not be suspected, and so could discover more than I, from whom facts would be studiously concealed. But, of course, you don't understand my meaning. I will explain, and then you can comprehend me."

Frank was all attention.

"You must know that I own a good deal of property in a certain township in Southern Minnesota. When a young man, I bought three hundred and twenty acres of land in the township of Jackson, obtaining it at a slight advance on government rates.

"Some improvements had been made, and I was induced to visit the place. I found but three families in residence, but I saw also that the place had large natural advantages, water-power, etc., and presented an unusually favorable site for a village. I had considerable means, and started the village by erecting a dozen houses, a store, a sawmill, gristmill, and so on.

"This formed a nucleus, and soon quite a village sprang up. The sawmill and gristmill proved profitable, all my houses were tenanted, and I erected more, securing also additional land. In course of time I was induced to sell some of my houses, but I still own two stores, a dozen houses, the saw and gristmills, besides two outlying farms.

"Living so far away, I could not attend personally to the business connected with my investment, and was compelled to appoint an agent. Up to four years since, I was fortunate enough to possess the services of a capable and trustworthy man, named Sampson. He died after a few weeks' illness, and I was compelled to look out for a successor.

"Now, I had a distant cousin, who had never succeeded very well in life, and was at that time seeking for employment of some kind. He heard of the vacancy, and importuned me to appoint him as my agent in Jackson. I had no reason to doubt his honesty, though his repeated failures might well have led me to suspect his capacity. I was weak enough, as I now consider it, to yield to his importunities and give him the post he sought.

"The result was that during the first year of his incumbency the amount turned over to me was only three-fourths as much as in the last year of his predecessor. The second year there was a further falling off. The same happened the third year, until at the present time my rents amount to less than half what they were in Mr. Sampson's time.

"Of course, my suspicions that my cousin was at least inefficient were aroused long since. I have repeatedly asked an explanation of the diminished revenues, and plenty of excuses have been made, but they do not seem to me satisfactory.

"Moreover, I have heard a rumor that Mr. Fairfield is intemperate in his habits, and I have considerable reason to believe that the story is correct. I have made up my mind that something must be done. A regard for my own interests requires that if my agent is unfaithful he should be displaced, and I wish to find out from some reliable source the true state of the case.

"Now I will tell you what I have in view. I propose to send you out to Jackson to investigate and report to me your impressions of the manner in which Mr. Fairfield discharges his duties, and whether you think a change should be made in the agency."

Frank listened to Mr. Percival with a flushed face and a feeling of gratification and pride that he should be thought of in connection with a responsible duty.

"I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Percival," he said, "for thinking of me in such a connection. You may feel that I am presumptuous for thinking I have any chance of successfully accomplishing what you desire, but if you are willing to trust me, I am willing to undertake it, and by following your instructions closely, and doing my best, I think I can succeed."

"I am willing to trust you, Frank," said Mr. Percival. "You are a boy, to be sure, but you have unusually good judgment, and I know you will be faithful to my interests. I understand, then, that you are willing to go out as my accredited representative?"

"Yes, sir. When do you want me to start?" said Frank, promptly.

"As soon as you can get ready."

"I will start to-morrow, if you desire it, sir."

"Let it be to-morrow, then. We will now discuss some of the details connected with the mission."

Horatio Alger