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Chapter 28

The next evening, as Houston stood for a few moments in the little porch, watching a game of lawn tennis which had been hastily improvised by the merry crowd, Lyle suddenly left the group of players and joined him. Looking at him rather archly, she asked:

“Do you expect to remain out as late to-night as you did last night?”

“I don’t know just how late I may be detained,” he answered, smiling, “Why? are you keeping a watchful eye upon me?”

“Certainly,” she replied, “Mr. Rutherford used to call himself your guardian, and now that he is gone, I must make his place good;” then she added more seriously, “This is an altogether different country from what you have been accustomed to; it is not particularly pleasant or safe for one to keep late hours here, especially if he has enemies.”

Houston was somewhat surprised by this second warning, but he answered lightly:

“Yes, I know I am in what Ned used to call ‘the camp of the Philistines,’ but you do not think I have any dangerous enemies, do you?”

“It is only fear of detection that keeps some of them from being dangerous,” said Lyle, who saw Miss Gladden approaching, “don’t give them any opportunities for working their spite in the dark.”

Miss Gladden just then came up, and Lyle soon resumed her place among the players.

“Going out again this evening, Mr. Houston?”

“Yes, Miss Gladden,” replied Houston with mock gravity.

“Excuse me, Everard,” she answered, blushing, “but when so many strangers are about, I am obliged to be very circumspect, you know.”

“There are no strangers within hearing at present, Leslie,” he replied, “but isn’t it nearly time for this crowd to take its departure?”

“Yes, they expect to leave to-morrow.”

“Thank Heaven!” exclaimed Houston devoutly.

Miss Gladden laughed merrily.

“Well,” he continued rather savagely, “I hope, after they are gone, we can enjoy our evenings again as we used to. For the last ten days, I have scarcely had an opportunity for a word with you, unless we deliberately gave the whole company the cold shoulder, which, of course, would not answer.”

“And so,” said Miss Gladden laughing, “you wreak your revenge upon poor me these last two evenings, by taking yourself away, where I cannot even have the satisfaction of seeing you, while I talk to somebody else.”

Houston smiled; “I am obliged to go out this evening, Leslie, I have an engagement to-night, with Jack, at his cabin.”

“With Jack!” exclaimed Miss Gladden, “then you have made his acquaintance!”

“No, I can scarcely say that, for I never exchanged a half dozen words with him before last evening. This interview to-night is wholly on business.”

“Well,” said Miss Gladden, who saw the players beckoning to her, “I am glad you are going to meet him. I saw him the other day, and had a talk with him regarding Lyle, and I wanted to tell you about it, but have had no opportunity. I think you will find him one of the most perfect gentlemen you ever met,” and with a little farewell wave of the hand, she left him to rejoin the players who were waiting for her.

Half an hour later, Houston found himself in the inner room of the little cabin, alone with Jack, while at the outside door, Rex was stationed as guard.

Already the twilight was beginning to gather in the little room, but even in its soft, shadowy light, Houston noted the evidences, existing on all sides, of a refined nature, a nature keenly appreciative of beauty in all its forms.

“I hope,” said Jack, seating himself near his guest, “that you will excuse the gathering darkness; I thought it more prudent not to have a light, as it might attract attention, I am in the habit of sitting so much in the twilight, myself.”

“A light is not necessary,” Houston replied, “the twilight is very pleasant, and the moon will be up presently, and will afford us all the light we need.”

There was a moment or two of silence, while Houston waited for his companion to broach the subject of the evening. He was anxious to ascertain how much regarding himself and his errand there in the camp, Jack really knew, and more particularly, to learn, if possible, how he had become possessed of his knowledge.

Jack, on his part, was wondering whether, with their brief acquaintance, he could give Houston any assurance that the latter would consider sufficient to warrant taking himself into full confidence concerning his work and plans, so that he could render the assistance he desired.

“You were doubtless somewhat surprised,” he began very deliberately and slowly, “by my request, last evening, for this interview.”

“Yes,” replied the other, “I will admit that I was surprised, more especially by the reason which you gave for your request,––that you understood my position here, and desired to help me.”

“Did it never occur to you that, to a person with any degree of penetration, any ability at reading a man’s character and habits of life, your position here, as clerk for a disreputable mining company, would, of itself, seem an anomaly, and be liable to excite the suspicion that you had some ulterior object in view?”

“I think,” said Houston, with a smile, “you are supposing a person with keener perceptions than are possessed by many in this locality.”

“They nearly all possess them to a certain degree, in a latent, uncultivated form, perhaps, but still there. For example, what is the true secret of Maverick’s hatred toward you, of Haight’s enmity, except that they recognize by a sort of instinct that you belong to an altogether different sphere from that in which they move? They cannot reason it out perhaps, but they feel it;––your language, your conduct, your manner, the very cut of your clothes, though but a plain business suit, proclaim to one who can read, and reason from these things correctly, and deduct their results therefrom, that you are a man of the highest culture and refinement, of high moral character, and of wealth. Consequently, the question arises, ‘What are you doing here?’”

“Pardon me, I do not intend to be personal in my remarks,” replied Houston, “but in my opinion, only a person who has himself moved in the highest circles of life would be able to reason in this manner.”

“Possibly,” said Jack, “they would be better able to classify you, as it were, and assign you to your true position, but these others feel keenly that you are not of their world, but they are generally incapable of drawing any conclusions from their observations, as very few of them have the reasoning faculty, and hence, they would not be likely to question your object or motive in holding this position. My design, however, in thus calling your attention to these facts, is simply to show you that you need not be greatly surprised when I say that from your first coming here, I have felt that you were no ordinary employe; that you were merely holding this position temporarily, either in your own interests, or in the interests of some one else,––but not in the interests of the mining company. Notwithstanding the fact that I live a very secluded life, I yet have means of ascertaining nearly all that is going on around me, and I will say to you truthfully, that I learned the secret of your mission here without even asking a question.”

“I can scarcely understand,” said Houston, “how you came to be the recipient of this secret, since you do not mingle with others, and apparently take very little interest in their affairs.”

“Perhaps,” said Jack, in low, musical tones, “you would be able to understand the situation better, did you know that your secret was told me by a friend of yours, who believed that, through my very isolation and loneliness, I could the better assist you.”

“A friend of mine!” exclaimed Houston, in surprise, “Is it possible that my eastern friends are known to you, and that some one of them has written you?”

“No one has written me, the story was told me by a friend of yours here.”

Instantly there flashed into Houston’s mind the memory of Lyle’s warning, and also of Miss Gladden’s declaration that she had seen and talked with Jack, but how could his true position be known to either of them?

“I have but two friends here, at present,” was his reply, “and they are women.”

“True women are the truest friends,” said Jack tersely.

“But how can either of them know anything regarding my work here?”

“I will tell you,” and very briefly Jack gave Houston an account of how his plans had first become known to Lyle, and of her subsequent interview with himself, begging his assistance in Houston’s behalf.

Houston was inexpressibly astonished and touched to find that the beautiful girl, whom he had considered friendless and helpless, and whom he had defended through a sense of chivalry, had, in return, served him so nobly and so opportunely. He resolved to see her and express to her his appreciation of what she had done, as early as possible.

“I think,” said Jack, in conclusion, “you will admit that by this means I have obtained a thorough understanding of what you wish to accomplish.”

“You understand it perfectly,” Houston answered.

“You will also admit that, after the years of experience that I have had in these particular mines, I must be thoroughly conversant with affairs in connection therewith, and could probably render you just the assistance you will need.”

“Most certainly you could,” responded Houston quickly, “I know of no one in the entire camp who could assist us so well as you.”

“Then,” said Jack, “the next and only consideration is, whether you have that degree of confidence in me, that you would feel warranted in trusting me implicitly,––”

“Enough said,” said Houston, interrupting him hastily but cordially, “I have that confidence in you, that, even if you had not sought this interview, sooner or later, I would have come to you for assistance.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Jack, in surprise, “may I ask why?”

Houston hesitated a moment, and then replied:

“I believe, though we have met so recently, we may speak together as friends, or as brothers; you spoke a while ago of the faculty of perception; please credit me with possessing it in some degree myself, and while I do not wish to be personal or intrusive in my remarks, I am sure you will allow me to say, that if there is any degree of incongruity between my appearance and the position I hold, it certainly exists in a much greater degree in your own case. I, of course, know nothing of your past life; I wish to know nothing of it, except so far as you yourself would tell me, should you ever choose to do so, but this much I do know, and have known from the first, that you are vastly superior to your surroundings here. You claim,––and you are correct,––that I have had the advantages of excellent birth and breeding, of culture and wealth, but you are not one whit behind me in any of these things. Added to all this is the experience which you have accumulated in these late years, in this particular branch of work; surely it was not strange that I felt your acquaintance would be invaluable, could I but secure your friendship sufficiently for you to be interested in my plans.”

The moon had risen, flooding the little room with a soft, pale light, but Jack was sitting in the shadow, and Houston could not see the effect produced by his words. He wondered a little that Jack made no response, and, after waiting in silence for a moment or two, continued:

“There is one other consideration which you have not mentioned, and which must not be omitted, and that is compensation.”

A sudden movement on Jack’s part caused Houston to pause for an instant, but nothing was said, and he proceeded:

“I could not think of asking you to share the difficulties and dangers of this work without abundant compensation. Mr. Cameron, my uncle, who is interested––”

“Stop!” said Jack, putting up one hand as if to ward off a blow; his voice was hoarse, almost stern, and vibrated with some strange, deep emotion; “If you ever speak to me again of compensation, I will utterly refuse to help you in any way.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Houston, in a low, gentle tone, “I intended no offense, and I shall certainly respect your wishes.”

“There was no offense,” replied Jack, more calmly, “but you spoke a few moments since of friendship; that word, to a man living the life I have lived, means volumes; whatever I do, let it be done for friendship’s sake.”

“So let it be!” responded Houston solemnly, strangely moved by Jack’s manner.

For a long time they talked of the work before them, and Houston spoke of the expected arrival of Van Dorn within the next day or two, who was to remain until the end.

“The end is not far distant,” said Jack, “for after his coming I can give you nearly all the additional proof needed,” and he then proceeded to give information concerning matters of which Houston had not, as yet, obtained even a clue. An arrangement was made whereby Houston and Van Dorn, after the arrival of the latter, were to meet Jack at the cabin, and perfect their plans for the brief campaign before them.

At last, as Houston rose to take his leave, he said: “I hope you will pardon the remark, but while I have not the least doubt of your friendship toward me in this, I cannot overcome the impression that you also have some personal interest in this matter.”

“Possibly,” replied Jack, gravely, still standing in the shadow as Houston stepped forth into the moonlight, “but not in the way in which you think.”