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CHAPTER IV
MR. BURTHON IS CONFIDENTIAL

Orissa was tired next day and she blundered several times in copying deeds and attending to the routine of the private office, where she alone was closeted with the proprietor. But Mr. Burthon would not have noticed had she set fire to the place, so intent was he upon a bundle of papers he had brought in with him and to which he devoted his exclusive attention.

The girl left him at his desk when she went to lunch and found him there, still occupied with the papers, when she returned. Several people wanted to see him personally, but he told Orissa to state he was engaged and could admit no one. She gave the message to the young man in charge of the outer office, where several clerks were employed, and they knew better than to allow anyone to invade Mr. Burthon’s private sanctum.

At about three o’clock, while she was busy at her desk, the secretary heard her name spoken and looked up. From his chair Mr. Burthon was eyeing her observantly. His gaze was clear and intelligent; the abstracted mood had passed.

“Come here, please, Miss Kane,” he said.

She brought her writing pad and sat down beside his desk, as she did when he dictated his letters; but he shook his head.

“We’ll not mind the mail to-day,” he said. “I want to talk with you; to advise with you. Queerly enough, Miss Kane, there isn’t a soul on earth in whom I can confide when occasion arises. In other words, I haven’t an intimate friend I can trust, or one who is sincerely interested in me.”

That embarrassed Orissa a little. Since she had been working at the office this was the first time he had addressed a remark to her not connected with the business. Indeed, the man was now regarding her much as he would a curiosity, as if he had just discovered her. She was amazed to hear him speak so confidentially and made no reply because she had nothing to say.

After a pause he continued:

“You haven’t much business experience, my child, but you have a keen intellect and decided opinions.” Orissa wondered how he knew that. “Therefore I am going to ask your advice in a matter where business is blended with sentiment. Will you be good enough to give me your candid opinion?”

“If you wish me to, sir,” she said, after some hesitation.

“Thank you, Miss Kane. The case is this: With four others I purchased some time ago a gold mine in Arizona known as the ‘Queen of Hearts.’ It cost me about all I am worth—some two hundred thousand dollars.”

Orissa gasped. It seemed an enormous sum. But he continued, speaking calmly and clearly:

“I thought at the time the mine was surely worth a million. I went to see it and found the ore exceedingly rich. The others, who purchased the Queen of Hearts with me, were equally deceived, for just recently we have discovered that the rich vein was either very narrow or was placed there by those we purchased from, with the intention of defrauding us. In either case, please understand that the mine is not worth a cotton hat. We are a stock company, and our stock is listed on the exchange and commands a high premium, for no one except the owners knows the truth about it. The general idea is that the mine is still producing largely—and it is—for, to protect ourselves until we can unload it on to others, we have secretly purchased rich ore elsewhere, dumped it into the mine, and then taken it out again.”

He paused, drumming absently on the desk with his fingers, and Orissa asked:

“What is the object of that deception, sir?”

“To maintain the public delusion until we can sell out. And now I come to the point of my story, Miss Kane. Gold mines, even as rich as the Queen of Hearts is reputed to be, are not easy to sell. I have exhausted all my resources in keeping up this deception and the time has come when I must sell or become bankrupt. The other stockholders have smaller interests and are wealthier men, but each one is striving hard to secure a customer. I have found one.”

He looked up and smiled at her; then he frowned.

“The man is my brother-in-law,” he added.

Orissa was getting nervous, but waited for him to continue.

“This brother-in-law is a man I detest. He married my only sister and did not treat her well. He is a notorious gambler and confidence man, although perhaps he would not admit that is his profession. At all events he had the assurance to sneer at me and abuse my sister, and I was powerless at the time to interfere. Fortunately the poor woman died several years ago. Since then I have not seen much of Cumberford, for he lives in the East. He came out here last month on some small business matter and has gone crazy over the Queen of Hearts mine. He hunted me up and asked if I’d sell part of my stock. I told him I would sell all or none. So he has been getting his money together and has raised two hundred and fifty thousand dollars—the sum I demanded.”

Orissa was looking at him wonderingly. The story seemed incredible. Perhaps Mr. Burthon saw the dismay and reproach in her eyes, for he asked:

“What do you think of this deal, Miss Kane? Am I not fortunate?”

“But—would you really sell a worthless property to this man—your own brother-in-law—and—and steal a fortune from him?” she inquired.

The man flushed and shifted uneasily in his seat.

“He abused my sister,” he said, as if defending himself.

“The property is worthless,” she persisted.

“He can hustle around and sell it again, as I am doing.”

“Suppose he fails? Suppose he refuses to do such a wicked thing?”

Mr. Burthon stared at her a moment. Then he laughed harshly.

“Cumberford would delight in such a ‘wicked’ game,” he replied. “And, if he failed to sell, the scoundrel would be ruined, for I believe this two hundred and fifty thousand is about all he’s worth.”

“It’s dreadful!” exclaimed the girl, really shocked.

“It is done every day in a business way,” he rejoined.

“Then why did you ask my advice?” demanded the girl, quickly. Before answering he waited to drum on the desk with his fingers again.

“Because,” said he, speaking slowly, “I dislike this man so passionately that I have wondered if the hatred blinds my judgment. He may be dangerous, too, yet I think he is too much of a fool to be able to injure me in retaliation. I don’t know him very well. I’ve not seen him before for years.” He paused, taking note of the horror spreading over the girl’s face. Then he smiled and added in a gentler voice: “Perhaps my chief reason, however, for seeking your advice is that I find I have still a conscience. Yes, yes; a troublesome conscience. I have been suppressing it for years, yet like Banquo’s ghost it will not down. My business judgment determines me to unload this worthless stock and save myself from the loss of my entire fortune. I must do it. It is like a man taking unawares a counterfeit coin, and then, discovering it is spurious, passing it on to some innocent victim. You might do that yourself, Miss Kane.”

“I do not believe I would.”

“Well, most people would, and think it no crime. In this case I’m merely passing a counterfeit, that I received innocently, on to another innocent. If the fact is ever known my business friends will applaud me. But that obstinate conscience of mine keeps asking the question: ‘Is it safe?’ It asserts that I am filled with glee because I am selling to a man I hate—a man who has indirectly injured me. I am to get revenge as well as save my money. Safe? Of course it’s safe. Yet my—er—conscience—the still small voice—keeps digging at me to be careful. It doesn’t seem to like the idea of dealing with Cumberford, and has been annoying me for several days. So I thought I would put the case to a young, pure-minded girl who has a clear head and is honest. I imagined you would tell me to go ahead. Then I could afford to laugh at cautious Mr. Conscience.”

“No,” said Orissa, gravely, “the conscience is right. But you misunderstand its warning. It doesn’t mean that the act is not safe from a worldly point of view, but from a moral standpoint. You could not respect yourself, Mr. Burthon, if you did this thing.”

He sighed and turned to his papers. Orissa hesitated. Then, impulsively, she asked:

“You won’t do it, sir; will you?”

“Yes, Miss Kane; I think I shall.”

His tone had changed. It was now hard and cold.

“Mr. Cumberford will call here to-morrow morning at nine, to consummate the deal,” he continued. “See that we are not disturbed, Miss Kane.”

“But, sir—”

He turned upon her almost fiercely, but at sight of her distressed, downcast face a kindlier look came to his eyes.

“Remember that the alternative would be ruin,” he said gently. “I would be obliged to give up my business—these offices—and begin life anew. You would lose your position, and—”

“Oh, I won’t mind that!” she exclaimed.

“Don’t you care for it, then?”

“Yes; for I need the money I earn. But to do right will not ruin either of us, sir.”

“Perhaps not; but I’m not going to do right—as you see it. I shall follow my business judgment.”

Orissa was indignant.

“I shall save you from yourself, then,” she cried, standing before him like an accusing angel. “I warn you now, Mr. Burthon, that when Mr. Cumberford calls I shall tell him the truth about your mine, and then he will not buy it.”

He looked at her curiously, reflectively, for a long time, as if he beheld for the first time some rare and admirable thing. The man was not angered. He seemed not even annoyed by her threat. But after that period of disconcerting study he turned again to his desk.

“Thank you, Miss Kane. That is all.”

She went back to her post, trembling nervously from the excitement of the interview, and tried to put her mind on her work. Mr. Burthon was wholly unemotional and seemed to have forgotten her presence. But, a half hour later, when he thrust the papers into his pocket, locked his desk and took his hat to go, he paused beside his secretary, gazed earnestly into her face a moment and then abruptly turned away.

“Good night, Miss Kane,” he said, and his voice seemed to dwell tenderly on her name.