The Great Fortuna Mine
THE GREAT FORTUNA MINE
A COMPLETE STORY.
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM.
Illustrated by A. J. GOUGH.
" MR. ANDERSON, I am sure. I recognised you directly. What a strange chance that we should come across one another in this out-of-the-way part of the world."
I had risen to my feet, of course, immediately she had taken me by surprise by halting in front of my small table. It was not possible to avoid taking the delicate long hand with its white fingers so frankly held out to me. We shook hands solemnly while I ransacked my brain for some coherent speech of apologetic denial. And then something in the expression of her wonderful brown eyes, a faint meaning contraction of the eyebrows as she looked straight at me, altered the whole situation. She knew quite well that my name was not Anderson; she was perfectly well aware of the indubitable fact that these were the first words which we had ever exchanged.
I mumbled something idiotic, and she turned to glance down the room. The old man with whom she had entered, a decrepit, weak-faced, but aristocratic looking, Englishman was shaking hands with an Italian, whom I had been told was a native of the place, and who had evidently come in to dine. They were out of earshot, and for the moment were not observing us.
She leaned over towards me.
"I have seen you here for the last few evenings," she said, hurriedly. "Tell me your real name."
"John P. Shrive," I answered. "I am an American."
The corners of her lips twitched slightly, and those wonderful eyes, which for several evenings I had done little else save sit and admire from a respectful distance, were filled with laughter.
"So I thought," she answered. "I wonder—I wonder whether you would care to do me a service?"
My words tripped one another up. I was incoherent, but earnest. For two days I had been vainly trying to find some excuse to speak to her. I had attempted a conversation with her father, and suffered the ignominy of a chilling repulse. A service. There was very little in the world which I would not have attempted for her.
"After dinner, then," she said, "do not sit out in the front. You will find some seats at the back of the house. Order your coffee there, and I will come when I can. And remember this. If my father or Count Perlitto should speak to you don't be drawn into any conversation at all. He rude to them if you can. Don't tell them anything about yourself or your business."
"Count Perlitto," I observed, "is the little dark gentleman with the brushed-up moustache?"
"Yes!" But it is my father who is most likely to ask you questions. Please don't think that this is a conspiracy, or anything very terrible. I will explain it all to you presently."
With a little smile and a nod she turned away and joined the two men at the other end of the room. I ordered double my usual quantity of wine and began my dinner.
Now, for two evenings I had dined alone at this same little table, which I had carefully chosen because it afforded me the most satisfactory view of the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. She was tall and very slight, her hair was a lightish brown, with here and there a glint of gold, and she had that French trick of laughing with her eyes which I never could resist. She wore delightfully cool muslin gowns, and about her whole person, her jewellery, her shoes, and the care of her hands, there was a certain inexplicable daintiness which was as much a part of her as that delightful little laugh which seemed to me the most musical thing I had ever heard in my life. But to-night things were different. I myself had become an object of the most surprising interest to her two companions. I saw the girl lean forward and talk to them as she trilled with some new and highly-seasoned hors d'œuvre and the effect of her words was instantaneous. Her father fumbled for a moment with an enormous horn-rimmed monocle, having successfully fixed which in his left eye, he turned and transfixed me with a most tremendous stare. The little Italian displayed a similar interest in slightly different fashion. He kept darting sidelong glances towards me, showing his white teeth and curling his black moustache, and all the while talking in most animated fashion to his two companions. This sort of thing went on more or less during the entire progress of the meal, to my great discomfort. No sooner did I raise my eyes to steal one of my customary glances towards the young lady than either the horn monocle with its blank, unwavering stare, or the little Italian's keen black eyes were fixed upon me. Between curiosity and annoyance, my dinner was completely spoilt. I missed a course, and was in the act of rising when I saw the whole party hurriedly leave their places and bear down upon me.
Her father, who only yesterday had responded to some attempted advances on my part with truly British hauteur, stopped at my table and smiled genially upon me.
"If you are taking your coffee outside this evening," he said, "will you join us? This is my friend, Count Perlitto, who is a large landowner in the neighbourhood; my daughter I believe you have already met."
I glanced towards her and found a decided negative engraven upon her frowning forehead. On the whole, though I was burning with curiosity to know what the whole thing meant, I was glad to have an opportunity of asserting my independence.
"I'm very much obliged to you, sir, for the suggestion," I said, "but I'm afraid it's quite impossible. I have a great deal of writing to do to-night, and the mails out here are a trifle scanty."
I distinctly saw the two men exchange rapid glances as I mentioned the writing.
The Count interposed. "The writing. Oh, yes," he said, "but afterwards? The evening is positively too fine to be spent within the doors—beneath the roof—ah, you understand? Besides, you are a tourist, is it not so, from a great country? We would wish, we who live here, to show hospitality to those who come so far from the large cities where all the sightseers find their way. Here it is very different. Here you see the true Italy. You will do us the honour, signor? There is some liqueur, not of the house, which is to he recommended."
Guidance was before me in the frown, now even more forbidding.
"Very sorry, Count," I said firmly. "It is quite impossible for me to join you this evening."
He departed with a polite expression of regret. The girl smiled at me over her shoulder, which I took to mean that so far I had done the correct thing. I sat down in my chair, poured out a glass of wine and tried to puzzle out where I stood. The Count, who was, as I well knew, the great landowner of the place, and whose aversion to tourists was a byword, and who had several times passed me on the road with an insolent stare, was suddenly more than commonly anxious to make my acquaintance. The father of the young lady who had been the object of my respectful, but vehement, admiration, after repulsing my advances in the most freezing manner, was displaying at least a similar anxiety. The change in both of them dated from the moment when the young lady herself had directed their attention towards me. The undoubted inference then was that she had told them something or other concerning me which had aroused their interest. I determined to go and find out what it was.
The place to which I had been directed was deserted when I arrived there, and deservedly so. There were a few iron chairs, a patch of scanty grass, a long line of out-buildings, and beyond, the sloping vineyards. I lit a cigarette, but decided not to advertise my presence there by ordering coffee. In a very few moments I heard the soft rustle of advancing skirts, and she came round the corner of the grey stone building.
Whatever this matter was in which I was becoming involved, it apparently savoured more of comedy than tragedy, to judge by the suppressed laughter in the girl's face. I wiped the dust from a chair with my handkerchief, and she sat down. She leaned over towards beside me with the utmost composure.
"I suppose, Mr.—Shrive," she began, "you have made up your mind that I am a most forward young person?"
"If you want me to tell you exactly what I do think of you," I answered, moving a little nearer, "all I can say is that I'm ready to go straight ahead."
She nodded composedly.
"Yes," she said, "you look like that sort of person."
"What sort of person?" I asked.
"The sort of person who goes straight ahead. It's a characteristic of your country-people, isn't it?"
"When one's mind is made up," I said, firmly, touching, as though by accident, the back of her chair.
"There are some necessary explanations," she murmured. "Afterwards——"
She looked at me. I withdrew my hand.
"Please go on," I said.
She certainly went straight to the point. "My father's name is Derwent," she said. "He has come out here to look at a silver mine belonging to Count Perlitto. He wants to buy it."
"Yes," I said, encouragingly "The Count looks like the sort who have silver mines to sell. We got plenty of them out in Boston."
"My father thinks he is a good business man," she continued. "As a matter of fact, he has lost nearly all his money speculating in things which he doesn't understand a bit. He has about twenty thousand pounds left. That is all we have to live upon. The Count is asking twenty-thousand pounds for this mine. If my father buys it we shall be penniless."
"Sure the mine's no good?" I asked.
"Absolutely," she answered, with the first note of impatience in her tone. "Ask yourself what the probabilities are. My father knows nothing about mining himself, and he has not even had an expert's opinion upon it. He goes entirely upon the Count's word, and what the Count chooses to show him. Why, the mine isn't being worked—hasn't been worked for thirty years."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "the Count hasn't the capital to work it. Labour out here's mighty cheap, but up-to-date mining takes a lot of money."
She looked at me with a faint frown. The smile had gone from her lips.
"The mine is worthless," she said, simply. "I am sure of it. I have read up its past history, and if ever there were silver there at all it has been exhausted long ago. But even granted that there is a chance in favour of the mine—which there isn't—I want you to remember that this twenty-thousand pounds is all that stands between us and beggary."
"In that case," I said, decidedly, "your father is mad even to think about the deal."
"I knew," she said, "that you would agree with me. You can understand, can you not, the trouble I am in? My father's mind is practically made up. He means to buy the mine. I saw a telegram to his lawyers, ordering them to realise our last securities. The moment the money comes, my father will sign the deed of purchase."
"Has he no friends?" I asked, "whose opinion he would take?"
"Not one," she answered. "He has always been so foolish that I think everyone is tired of advising him. He always goes his own way in the long run. He is so painfully obstinate. I do not think that there is anybody who can help me—except you."
Her hand fell upon my coat-sleeve, and mine promptly closed over it. She made no movement to draw it away. I felt that I would have pitched the Count down one of his own shafts with pleasure if she had asked me.
"What can I do?" I asked.
"I will tell you," she said. "A plan came into my head when I saw you sitting there alone this evening. Somehow—you looked helpful, and—I had an idea that—you know you have behaved rather badly, haven't you?"
"You mean that I have looked at you a good deal," I answered. "I couldn't help it, Miss Derwent, indeed. It wasn't impertinence. I just felt that I wanted to know you badly, and the next best thing was to sit in my corner and watch you. You are rather nice to watch."
"Am I?" she asked, softly.
"You couldn't give me greater happiness," I said, "than to help you, if, indeed, that is possible. You see, helping implies a reward, doesn't it?"
"You want bribing, then?" she asked, with affected coldness.
"Call it an incentive," I answered. "At least—if it is all I can get—a word of gratitude from you will be worth all the trouble you can give me."
"Is that all—you will expect?" she asked softly.
I felt my heart thumping against my ribs. I wanted to raise her fingers to my lips, and draw her closer to me, and I dared do nothing of the sort. I knew well that she was half playing with me, that she permitted herself this badinage because she had decided rightly or wrongly that I was a person to be trusted.
"If I dared to ask all that I would wish to claim," I said, earnestly, "I am afraid that you would say that my service was not worth the price."
An incomprehensible smile played about her lips. I have often wondered since exactly what she was thinking of at that moment.
"Supposing," she suggested, softly, "that we waive the question of incentive—or reward."
"I will willingly leave it," I said, "to your generosity."
She sighed. Her tone when she spoke again was more practical. I felt that a delightful little interlude was over.
"To go back to my plan," she said. "What I want you to do is very simple. I want you to transform yourself into one of those creatures who go about and report on mines—experts you know."
I looked at her steadily.
"Ah!" I said.
"In fact," she continued. "so far as my father and the Count are concerned, you are one already. I told them that your real name was Anderson, that I met you at Mrs. Murgatroyd's and that you were something to do with mining. You must have noticed their sudden change of manner towards you."
"Yes," I admitted. "I noticed that."
"Of course," she continued, "you won't want to give yourself away all at once. Keep up the tourist as long as you can. But in the end I want you to let father think that you have been sent here by another syndicate to report upon the property, and that your decision is most unfavourable. That ought to stop him buying it, and, in short, that is my plan."
I remained silent. I felt her eyes upon me.
"Do you mind?" she asked timidly. "Is it too difficult? Or perhaps you don't like saying what isn't true?"
"I don't mind a bit," I assured her. "I think that your plan is wonderful, and I will do my best to carry it out."
"I shall never he able to thank you enough," she murmured. "Poverty is hard enough as it is. but destitution!"
I took her hand again. It was soft and cool, and faintly responsive. I felt that I would have lied till I was black in the face for her. But I wondered——
The Count was first upon the field. He caught me smoking an early cigarette in the cobbled square of the little town, and at once waved his hand in friendly salute.
"Ah!" he cried, a$ though the sight of me were some unexpected boon conferred upon him by Providence. "It is Mr. Anderson, is it not? Good morning! Good morning!"
"My name," I answered, "is Shrive. John P. Shrive!"
The Count shrugged his shoulders. Suddenly he came close up to my side and looked round to be sure that we were alone.
"Come," he said, "you are an American; you are a people of great affairs; you like, I think, that one talks business with you. Whatever your name may be, you are here to make a report upon my mine—the Great Fortuna Mine. Is it not so?"
"My dear Count," I said, "I guess you are a long way off this time. I know no more about mines than a babe unborn. I'm junior partner and buyer for a firm of dry goods men in Boston, and I'm on my way to Genoa to buy silk. I just stopped over a day or so to get a bit of your country at first hand, and to see your pictures."
The Count listened to me with marked impatience, tapping his leg all the while with his long riding whip. When I had finished he smiled at me serenely.
"Very good, very good, my dear sir. I understand perfectly that it is necessary for you to act secretly. But I will be frank with you. The mine is as good as sold."
I was careful to let an instantly smothered little exclamation of dismay escape me. The Count heard it with a smile of triumph.
"To whom?" I asked.
"To the Englishman, Mr. Derwent," the Count answered promptly. "I am quite open with you—as you see. I cannot treat with your principals, whoever they may be."
"My principals," I answered, "don't buy mines. We deal in dry goods."
"Yes! Yes!" he ejaculated impatiently. "I know all about that. But let us talk like sensible men, eh? The mine being sold, your report is useless, is it not so? Come, you shall not have your labour for nothing. I will buy it from you."
"If the mine is already sold," I remarked, "of what value can my report be—supposing I have made one?"
"As good as sold," he interrupted. "It is the formalities only which await completion."
"Then I still do not see," I said, "of what value my supposed report could be."
The Count fixed me with his little black eyes.
"For the purposes of a business," he said slowly, "no! It is not worth the paper on which it is written. But I will show you how frank I am. Mr. Derwent, he, too, knows that you are Mr. Anderson, the mining expert. He will come to you for your verdict. He will, perhaps, try to buy your report. Now, you have had no opportunity to inspect the property properly. It may be—I cannot tell—that you have even prepared an unfavourable report. If so I will buy it from you. I do not wish to cause the good Mr. Derwent any uneasiness."
"The uneasiness," I remarked, "will come later on."
"What you mean?" he asked, quickly.
"I know nothing about mines," I said. "I am a dry goods man. But somehow I don't take much stock in the Fortuna Mine."
"For how much you not say that again?" he asked. "Not any more at all. For how much you say it is a good mine?"
The little Count had got there at last. I pursed up my lips and stood as though thinking. The Count watched my face anxiously.
Fortunately for me intervention came in the shape of Mr. Derwent and his daughter, who called to us from the front of the hotel. I could not but admire the ease and grace with which the Count cloaked his annoyance. He took me by the arm and led me across the square, all smiles and bows.
"For how much, dear friend?" he whispered in my ear.
I shook my head.
"You're rushing this a bit, Count," I answered. "I'll think it over."
The Count muttered something which sounded very much like "damn," but was probably something worse. A moment afterwards we were shaking hands with the Derwents.
Miss Derwent, in a broad-brimmed picture hat trimmed with roses, and a white flannel gown, looked more charming than ever. Her greeting, too, with its delicate insinuation of our secret understanding, was exactly what I had looked for. She had talked to me in undertones of the beauty of the place, the clearness of the sky, the wonderful early sunlight in which the distant vine covered hills were bathed. But of the other things which lay between us she made no mention, nor did she attempt in any way to draw me apart from the others.
Our déjeuner—I seemed to be included in the meal as a matter of course—was quite a success. The Count chattered gaily and well of the beauties of the country where, he told us, with a little burst of pardonable pride, his family had ruled for ten centuries. He spoke of art and the things appertaining to it with the ease and fluency of one who was master of his subject. Of his mine, too, he spoke vaguely as the repository of hidden treasures which would long ago have been dragged to light but for his love of the quiet countryside.
"You English," he said, "and you," he added, addressing me, "you do not understand that feeling. It is well for you that you do not. You are a utilitarian people. It is you who work hand-in-hand to-day with the great forces of the world. But with us here it is different. We are guilty of the terrible weakness of leaning upon our past. The people round here are my people. I want to see them husbandmen and wine-growers, not miners with pale faces, sowing the seeds of weakness in the next generation. I love to see my hillsides covered with vineyards as they have ever been. I do not love the tall shafts, the roar of machinery, the country made black and scarred with the entrails torn out of the earth. And yet these things must come," he murmured, leaning back and lighting a cigarette. "For many years I have struggled against it, but no longer. Ah, it is not possible."
I looked across at the Count with unfeigned admiration. His beautiful eyes were filled with sadness. He leaned back in his chair, looking out upon the distant hillside as though already those shafts had come into existence. Miss Derwent permitted herself faintest of smiles as she glanced across at me. Mr. Derwent seemed intent upon the great dish of strawberries which the Count had sent down from his own villa.
After breakfast we were served with coffee and some delicate green liqueur, and then Mr. Derwent took his hand in the game. He began by moving his chair close to mine, and making clumsy efforts to get rid of the Count and his daughter. At this sort of game the Count was his master, and with very faint help from Veronica (I knew her name now), his attempts for some time were unsuccessful. At last, however, in obedience, as I suspect, to a vigorous under-the-table injunction from her father, Veronica rose languidly to her feet.
"I am afraid," she said, "that I am in an extravagant frame of mind this morning. After all, I think that I must have that ivory cross. Count, will you come and interpret for me?"
The Count rose to his feet with much less than his usual gallantry.
"Will you not charge me with the commission, signorina," he said. "My shop-people, when they see an English lady or an American, are, I fear, inclined to be exorbitant. Leave it to me, and I will promise you the cross at much less cost."
Veronica hesitated. Mr. Derwent interposed.
"Nonsense, my dear!" he exclaimed. "I have seen the cross, and I think the price very reasonable. Go with the Count at once and secure it. I insist!" It is only fair that we should spend a little money in a town where we have been so well entertained."
Veronica lifted her white skirts just far enough to show me a delightful little foot, and turned towards the Count. It was not possible for him to hesitate any longer. He made a vigorous effort, however, to include me in the party.
"You, too, Mr. Anderson," he said, passing his arm through mine. "Oh, I insist. There are, indeed, some veritable curios to be seen. It is an opportunity which you must not miss."
I am convinced that Mr. Derwent would have detained me by main force had I not saved him the trouble. I rose from my chair as Veronica passed, but excused myself with some emphasis.
"Sorry, Count,' I said, "but I'm afraid I'm very unlike most of my countrypeople in that respect. I've no use for curios. I like my ornaments and my furniture clean and modern. I'll keep Mr. Derwent company."
The Count threw me a look over his shoulder, evidently intended to remind me of our uncompleted bargain. Veronica nodded to me from underneath her parasol, and crossed the square at a pace which the Count must have found maddeningly slow. Mr. Derwent leaned over towards me and opened the ball straight off.
"I—er—was hoping to have a few minutes' conversation with you this morning, Mr. Anderson," he said, slowly adjusting his eye-glass. "from something which my daughter let drop in—er—the course of conversation, I gathered that you were to some extent interested in—in short, in mining properties."
"You wanted to ask me," I suggested, "about this mine of the Count's?"
"Exactly!" he admitted. "Now I am free to confess that I am not a mining expert. I came out to have a look at the property, meaning—er—to have an independent opinion in case I thought it likely to interest me. I find, however, that there is no room for any delay in the matter. Our good friend the Count—very decent, hospitable sort of fellow he seems—is, between ourselves, hard pressed. He means to sell, and to sell at once. He says that his brother is even now in London with a power of attorney. However that may be, it is certain that I have no time to get an expert out. I must rely upon my own judgment and the Count's honesty."
"Of the two——" I murmured.
"Eh?" Mr. Derwent interrupted.
I stirred my coffee vigorously and disclaimed speech. Mr. Derwent glared at me from behind his monocle.
"It occurred to me," he went on, "that you might in this dilemma be inclined to help me with a word of advice. I am aware," he went on with a little wave of the hand, "that such a course is a little unusual. I refrain from asking you any personal questions. What your position here may be I do not know. I do not enquire. It is not my business. You may be—er—representing other interests. I will take my risk of that. I have ventured to make out this cheque for one hundred guineas"; he pushed it towards me, "Consider me for the moment as a client. Is the Great Fortuna Mine worth twenty-thousand pounds?"
I tore the cheque into small pieces. "It is not worth twenty-thousand pence," I answered.
He suddenly dropped his eye-glass and leaned forward. I scarcely knew him. A certain vagueness of expression was gone. He spoke and looked like a wide-awake, astute man.
"Come," he said, "I don't like your tearing that cheque up. You could have given me value for the money, and no man should be ashamed to take what he has earned."
"No man," I answered, "can serve two masters. That's a mighty true saying, Mr. Derwent."
"There's only one thing I'm afraid of about you," he said, eyeing me keenly. "I can't be altogether sure that Veronica hasn't been getting at you."
"Do you allude," I asked guardedly, "to your daughter?"
He ignored my question, hut I could see that his suspicions were growing.
"For some reason or other," he remarked thoughtfully, "Veronica is dead set against this deal. I never knew her interfere in a business matter before. I can't understand it at all."
"Your daughter," I said gravely, "may surely be pardoned if she takes some interest in a matter concerning her so closely."
"But for the life of me," he protested, "I cannot see how it does concern her."
"Speculations such as this," I said severely, "may be the pastime of the rich; but to gamble with the shreds of one's fortune is unpardonable."
He looked at me in amazement.
"You—I—but you must be acquainted with my daughter, I suppose. You must have some idea of what you are talking about?"
"Naturally," I answered tersely.
"Then upon my word, for an intelligent young man," he said, "you're about the best hand at talking nonsense I've come across."
"You ought to be a judge," I answered. "However, for your daughter's sake, here's the best and safest tip you've ever had. Let the mine alone."
"I'm inclined to think you're right," he admitted with a sigh. "It is a risk, especially if your people, whoever they may be, are 'bears.' I hate to come all this way and do no business, though."
"Why don't you stay at home, then," I said, severely, "and for your daughter's sake put the little you have in good railroad stock?"
He set down the liqueur glass which he had been in the act of raising to his and looked at me for a moment in utter astonishment. Then he leaned back in his chair and laughed till the tears came into his eyes
"I don't know who you are," he said weakly, "but you're the funniest young man I ever came across. Never mind. I believe you're right about the mine. We'll start back to London this morning."
I was perhaps as astonished as he was, but I said nothing, for the Count and Veronica were close at hand. The former looked at us both anxiously.
"Come," he called out, "we have triumphed. The ivory cross is ours. And now, if you are ready, Mr. Derwent, my carriage is here. The notary will be at my villa in an hour's time."
Mr. Derwent rose to his feet.
"One moment, Count," he said.
They stepped aside. Veronica turned to me. There was the most becoming little pink flush upon her cheek.
"Well?" she exclaimed.
"I think that your father is persuaded," I said. "He will not buy. He is telling the Count so now."
She laughed softly.
"My friend," she said, "I shall be for ever in your debt."
"I would rather," I answered, "that you paid."
She looked at me and down at her feet.
"He would have signed last night," she said, "if I had not invented you."
The Count and Mr. Derwent came towards us. The former was pale with rage. I am convinced that nothing but the arrival of a telegraph messenger at that instant prevented his assaulting me. He tore open his message, and as he read he became a changed man.
"Alas!" he exclaimed, turning towards Mr. Derwent with ill-concealed triumph, "I can no longer argue this matter with you. Your time was up last night. You have exceeded it, and, behold, the mine is no longer mine to deal with. It is sold."
Mr. Derwent looked sharply at me.
"Sold to whom? he asked.
The Count shrugged his shoulders.
"It is my brother in London who has arranged the matter," he said. "He has power of attorney, and he has received the money. The purchaser is a Mr. Charles Ellicot."
Mr. Derwent looked at his daughter.
"What do you know about this, Veronica?" he asked.
"Tell you presently, father," she answered. "Just at present I want to talk to Mr. Anderson. Please come here."
I followed her obediently round the hotel to the gardens in the rear. She made me sit down, and took the seat next to mine. As though afraid that I might seek to escape, she laid her hand upon mine. It was not necessary.
"First of all," she began, boldly, "I'm engaged to Charlie."
I held her hand tightly. I was not capable of articulate speech just then.
"Father wouldn't hear of it," she went on. "He said that Charlie was too poor, and had never done anything. He didn't believe in Charlie. I did."
She paused. I think she found my silence a little disconcerting.
"Charlie heard of this mine," she went on. "He sent over two experts and got two magnificent reports. Then he set about trying to raise the money to buy it. Unfortunately, father heard about the mine too, and he decided to come over and look at it. I came with him to try to stop his buying it, if I could. All the time Charlie was trying to raise the money in London. Yesterday he wired me, 'All promised. Shall conclude to-morrow,' I was almost at my wit's end, for father had arranged to conclude the purchase last night."
"This is where I come in, I suppose," I remarked feebly.
"They really put the idea into my head," she said. "My father wondered whether you were not here in connection with the mine, and the Count looked mysterious and smiled to himself. So I spoke to you last night, and afterwards I told them that you were a mining-engineer. That put father off at once, for he saw a chance of getting an expert opinion."
"He had it," I murmured.
"It was awfully sweet of you," she declared "You see how beautifully it has all come off!"
"Then it wasn't your father's last twenty thousand pounds!" I remarked, suddenly.
"Of course not," she murmured. "My father is really Lord Derwent. He prefers to travel incognito because people bother him so."
For a moment the humour of this thing possessed me. I recalled my sound advice to a multi-millionaire, and I laughed till the tears stood in my eyes. Suddenly I remembered that I, too, had a confession to make.
"By-the-by," I said slowly, "did you say that your—your friend——"
"Charlie," she murmured.
"Had had two favourable reports on the mine?"
"And has bought it?"
She nodded. I looked at her sympathetically. After all, it was impossible for her to marry a pauper.
"I am very sorry to hear it," I said, hypocritically. "Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this affair is that I am really a mining engineer, and have been preparing a secret report upon this property."
She looked at me in amazement.
"Are you in earnest?" she asked
"I am sorry to say I am," I answered. "I came over on behalf of a New York syndicate, and I posted my report to them last night. I told your father the literal truth. The Great Fortuna Mine is not worth twenty thousand pence."
"What a fraud the Count is," she sighed, "and what a lot of money people will lose."
"Yes, but Charlie!"
She laughed softly.
"Oh, it makes no difference to Charlie," she said. "I believe he had to pay an awful lot of money for those favourable reports, but he's sold out to a syndicate for a hundred-thousand pounds. He got the signatories and raised the money of them to buy the mine. The syndicate will sell to a company, and, of course, the public who buy shares will be the people who will lose their money. I think Charlie's quite clever, don't you?"
"I should imagine there's no doubt about it," I assured her.
We sat for a few moments in silence. Our hands were still very close together. I was feeling exceedingly depressed.
"We spoke," I remarked, "of something in the nature of a reward."
"It is quite true," she admitted. "You have earned it. Please sit still."
She rose to her feet and bent over me.
"Close your eyes," she whispered.
I obeyed her. To this moment I can remember the touch of the sun upon my shut eyelids, the rustling of the soft, lazy air through the orange trees, the drowsy humming of bees in the garden. I felt her face close to mine—and suddenly the touch of her lips, one whispered word in my ear! I had had my reward.
For a second I remained there, motionless. I lacked the power or the will to tear myself away. Then with a little cry I sprang to my feet and hurried round the corner of the hotel. I was too late. The hotel omnibus, laden with luggage, was rumbling across the square, the Count stood upon the pavement waving a florid farewell. A little white hand flashed out of the window. It was the last I ever saw of Veronica.
But one morning, some two months later, I received a packet in an unfamiliar handwriting. When I opened it I found one hundred shares in the Great Fortuna Silver Mine, and a little scrawl of paper:
"Charlie says these are very good to sell—quickly!"