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The City of Numbered Days By Francis Lynde Characters: 17459

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Mirapolis

During the strenuous weeks when Camp Niquoia's straggling street was acquiring plank sidewalks and getting itself transformed into Chigringo Avenue, with a double row of false-fronted "emporiums" to supplant the shack shelters, Monsieur Poudrecaulx Bongras, late of the San Francisco tenderloin, opened the camp's first counter-grill.

Finding monsieur's name impossible in both halves of it, the camp grinned and rechristened him "Poodles." Later, discovering his dual gift of past mastership in potato frying and coffee making, the camp gave him vogue. Out of the vogue sprang in swift succession a café with side-tables, a restaurant with private dining-rooms, and presently a commodious hotel, where the food was excellent, the appointments luxurious, and where Jack-clothed and in his right mind and with money in his hand-was as good as his master.

It was in one of Bongras's private dining-rooms that Mr. J. Wesley Cortwright was entertaining Brouillard, with Miss Genevieve to make a harmonizing third at the circular table up to the removal of the cloth and the serving of the cigars and a second cold bottle.

The little dinner had been a gustatory triumph; Miss Genevieve had added the charm of lightness at moments when her father threatened to let the money clink become painfully audible; and the cigars were gold-banded. Nevertheless, when Miss Cortwright had gone up-stairs, and the waiter would have refilled his glass, Brouillard shook his head.

If the millionaire saw the refusal he was too wise to remark it. Altogether, Brouillard was finding his first impressions of Mr. Cortwright readjusting themselves with somewhat confusing rapidity. It was not that there was any change in the man. Charactering the genial host like a bachelor of hospitality, he was still the frank, outspoken money-maker, hot upon the trail of the nimble dollar. Yet there was a change of some kind. Brouillard had marked it on the day, a fortnight earlier, when (after assuring himself morosely that he would not) he had gone down to the lower canyon portal to see the Cortwright touring-car finish its second race across the desert from El Gato.

"Of course, I was quite prepared to have you stand off and throw stones at our little cob house of a venture, Brouillard," the host allowed at the lighting of the gold-banded cigars. "You're the government engineer and the builder of the big dam; it's only natural that your horizons should be filled with government-report pictures and half-tones of what's going to be when you get your dam done. But you can't build your dam in one day, or in two, and the interval is ours. I tell you, we're going to make Mirapolis a buzz-hummer while the daylight lasts. Don't you forget that."

"'Mirapolis'?" queried Brouillard. "Is that the new name?"

Cortwright laughed and nodded. "It's Gene's name-'Miracle City.' Fits like the glove on a pretty girl's arm, doesn't it?"

"It does. But the miracle is that there should be any money daring enough to invest itself in the Niquoia."

"There you go again, with your ingrained engineering ideas that to be profitable a scheme must necessarily have rock-bottom foundations and a time-defying superstructure," chuckled the host. "Why, bless your workaday heart, Brouillard, nothing is permanent in this shuffling, growing, progressive world of ours-absolutely nothing. Some of the biggest and costliest buildings in New York and Chicago are built on ground leases. Our ground lease will merely be a little shorter in the factor of time."

"So much shorter that the parallel won't hold," argued Brouillard.

"The parallel does hold; that is precisely the point. Every ground-lease investment is a gamble. The investor simply bets that he can make the turn within the time limit."

"Yes; but a long term of years--"

"There you are," cut in the financier. "Now you've got it down to the hard-pan basis: long time, small profits and a slow return; short time, big profits and a quick return. You've eaten here before; what do you pay Bongras for a reasonably good dinner?"

Brouillard laughed. "Oh, Poodles. He cinches us, all right; four or five times as much as it's worth-or would cost anywhere else."

"That's it. He knows he has to make good on all these little luxuries he gives you-cash in every day, as you might say, and come out whole before you stop the creek and drown him. Let me tell you something, Brouillard; San Francisco brags about being the cheapest city in the country; they'll tell you over there that you can buy more for your money than you can anywhere else on earth. Well, Mirapolis is going to take the trophy at the other end of the speedway. When we get in motion we're going to have Alaska faded to a frazzle on prices-and you'll see everybody paying them joyfully."

"And in the end somebody, or the final series of somebodies, will be left to hold the bag," finished Brouillard.

"That's a future. What is it the Good Book says? 'Let us eat, drink and be merry, for to-morrow we die.' That's philosophy, and it's good business, too. Not that I'm admitting your pessimistic conclusions for a single minute; don't mistake me on that point. There needn't be any bag holders, Brouillard. Let me put it in a nutshell: we're building a cement plant, and we shall sell you the output-at a good, round price, I promise you, but still at a lower figure than you're paying for the imported article now, or than you will pay even after the railroad gets in. When our government orders are filled we can afford to wreck the plant for what it will bring as junk. We'll be out of it whole, with a nice little profit."

"That is only one instance," objected the guest.

"Well, Bongras, here, is one more," laughed the host. "He gets a piece of his investment back every time anybody looks over his menu card. And our power plant is another. You made your little kick on that to Washington-you thought the government ought to control its own power. That was all right, from your point of view, but we beat you to it. Now the Reclamation Service gets all the power it needs at a nominal price, and we're going to sell enough more to make us all feel happy."

"Sell it? To whom?"

Mr. Cortwright leaned back in his chair and the sandy-gray eyes seemed to be searching the inner recesses of the querying soul.

"That's inside information, but I don't mind taking you in on it," he said between leisurely puffs at his cigar. "We've just concluded a few contracts: one with Massingale-he's going to put in power drills, electric ore-cars, and a modern equipment generally and shove the development of the 'Little Susan'; one with a new mining syndicate which will begin operations at once on half a dozen prospects on Jack's Mountain; and one with a lumber combination that has just taken over the sawmills, and will install others, with a planing-mill and sash factory."

Brouillard nodded. The gray eyes were slowly hypnotizing him.

"But that isn't all," continued the promoter. "We are about to reincorporate the power plant as the Niquoia Electric Power, Lighting, and Traction Company. Within a fortnight we'll be lighting Mirapolis, and within a month after the railroad gets in we'll be operating trolley-cars."

The enthusiast paused to let the information sink in, also to note the effect upon the subject. The noting was apparently satisfactory, since he went on with the steady assurance of one who sees his way clearly.

"That brings us down to business, Brouillard. I don't mind admitting that I had an object in asking you to dine with me this evening. It's this: we feel that in the reorganization of the power company the government, which will always be the largest consumer, should be represented in some effective way; that its interests should be carefully safeguarded. It is not so easy as it might seem. We can't exactly make the government a stockholder."

"No," said Brouillard mechanically. The under-depths were stirring again, heaving as if from a mighty ground-swell that threatened a tidal wave of overturnings.

"We discussed that phase of it in the directors' meeting this morning," continued the hypnotist smoothly, "and I made a suggestion which, as president of the company, I was immediately authorized to carry out. What we need, and what the government needs, is a man right here on the ground who will be absolutely loyal to the government's interests and who can be, at the same time, broad enough and honorable enough to be fair to us."

Brouillard roused himself by a palpable effort.

"You have found your man, Mr. Cortwright?"

A genial smile twinkled in the little gray eyes.

"I didn't have very far to go. You see,

I knew your father and I'm not afraid to trust his son. We are going to make you the government director, with full power to investigate and to act. And we're not going to be mean about it, either. The capital stock of the company is ten millions, with shares of a par value of one hundred dollars each, full paid and non-assessable. Don't gasp; we'll cut a nice little melon on that capitalization every thirty days, or my name isn't Cortwright."

"But I have no money to invest," was the only form the younger man's protest took.

"We don't need your money," cut in the financier with curt good nature. "What we do need is a consulting engineer, a man who, while he is one of us and identified with us, will see to it that we're not tempted to gouge our good Uncle Samuel. It will be no sinecure, I warn you. We're all pretty keen after the dollar, and you'll have to hold us down good and hard. Of course, a director and a consulting officer must be a stockholder, but we'll take care of that."

Brouillard smoked in silence for a full minute before he said: "You know as well as I do, Mr. Cortwright, that it is an unwritten law of the Service that a civilian employee of the government shall not engage in any other business."

"No, I don't," was the blunt reply. "That rule may be good enough to apply to senators and representatives-and it ought to; outside jobs for them might influence legislation. But in your case it would not only be unjust to apply it; it would be absurd and contradictory. Supposing your father had left you a hundred thousand dollars to invest instead of a debt of that amount-you see, I know what a load your keen sense of honor is making you carry-suppose you had this money to invest, would your position in the Reclamation Service compel you to lock it up in a safety vault?"

"Certainly not. But--"

"Very good. Your objection to taking part in our project would be that a man can't be strictly impartial when he has a stake in the game; some men couldn't, Mr. Brouillard, but you can; you know you can, and I know it. Otherwise you wouldn't be putting half of your salary and more into life-insurance premiums to secure a debt that isn't even constructively yours."

"Yes; but if the department should learn that I am a stockholder in a company from which it buys its power--"

"There wouldn't be a word said-not one single word. They know you in Washington, Brouillard, better, perhaps, than you think they do. They know you would exact a square deal for the department even if it cost you personal money. But this is all academic. The practical facts are that you'll come in as consulting engineer and that you'll hold us strictly up to the mark on the government power contract. It's your duty and part of your job as chief of construction. And we'll leave the money consideration entirely out of it if you like. You'll get a stock-certificate, which you may keep or tear up and throw into the waste-basket, just as you please. If you keep it and want to realize on it at any time before you begin to put the finishing forms on the dam, I'll do this: I'll agree to market it for you at par. Now let's quit and go and find Gene. She'll think we've tippled ourselves under the table."

"One moment," said Brouillard. "You have a way of taking a man off his feet, Mr. Cortwright; a rather pleasant way I'm bound to admit. But in this thing which you are proposing there are issues involved which--"

"You want time to think it over? Take it, man; take all the time you need. There's no special hurry."

Brouillard felt that in accepting the condition he was potentially committing himself. It was a measure of the distance he had already travelled that he interposed a purely personal obstacle.

"I couldn't serve as your engineer, Mr. Cortwright, not even in a consulting capacity. Call it prejudice or anything you please, but I simply couldn't do business in an associate relation with your man Hosford."

Cortwright had risen, and he took his guest confidentially by the buttonhole.

"Do you know, Brouillard, Hosford gets on my nerves, too? Don't let that influence you. We'll let Hosford go. We needed him at first to sort of knock things into shape; it takes a man of his calibre in the early stages of a project like ours, you know. But he has outlived his usefulness and we'll drop him. Let's go up-stairs."

It was quite late in the evening when Brouillard, a little light-headed from an after-dinner hour of purely social wit-matching with Miss Genevieve, passed out through the café of the Metropole on his way to his quarters.

There were a few late diners at the tables, and Bongras, smug and complacent in evening regalia, was waddling about among them like a glorified head waiter, his stiffly roached hair and Napoleonic mustaches striving for a dignity and fierceness which was cruelly negatived by a round, full-fed face and an obese little body.

"Ze dinnare-she was h-all right, M'sieu' Brouillard?" he inquired, holding the engineer for a moment at the street door.

"As right as the price you're going to charge Mr. Cortwright for it," joked Brouillard.

"Sacré!" swore the amiable one, spreading his hands, "if you could h-only know 'ow eet is cost to bring dose dinnare on dis place! Two dollare de 'undred pounds dat mule-freightare is charge me for bringing dose chip-pest wine from Quesado! Sommtime ve get de railroad, n'est-ce pas, M'sieu' Brouillard? Den ve make dose dinnare moz risson-able."

"Yes, you will!" Brouillard scoffed jocosely. "You'll be adding something then for the uniqueness-for the benefit of the tourists. It'll be a great ad, 'The Hotel Metropole, the Delmonico's of the Lake Bottom. Sit in and dine with us before the heavens open and the floods come.'"

"I'll been wanting to h-ask you," whispered the Frenchman with a quick-flung glance for the diners at the nearest of the tables, "doze flood-when she is coming, M'sieu' Brouillard?"

"When we get the dam completed."

"You'll bet money h-on dat?-h-all de money you got?"

"It's a sure thing, if that's what you're driving at. You can bet on it if you want to."

"I make my bet on de price of de dinnare," smiled Bongras. "Mais, I like to know for sure."

"Why should you doubt it?"

"Moi, I don't doubt nottings; I make de grass to be cut w'ile de sun is shine. But I'll been hearing somebody say dat maybe-so dis town she grow so fas' and so beeg dat de gover'ment is not going drown her."

"Who said that?"

"I don't know; it is bruit-what you call rumaire. You hear it h-on de Avenue, in de café, h-anyw'eres you go."

Brouillard laughed again, this time with his hand on the door-latch.

"Don't lower your prices on the strength of any such rumor as that, Poodles. The dam will be built, and the Niquoia will be turned into a lake, with the Hotel Metropole comfortably anchored in the deepest part of it-that is, if it doesn't get gay enough to float."

"Dat's juz what I'll been thinking," smiled the little man, and he sped the parting guest with a bow that would have graced the antechamber of a Louis le Grand.

Out in the crisp night air, with the stars shining clear in the velvet sky and the vast bulks of the ramparting mountains to give solidity and definiteness to the scheme of things, Brouillard was a little better able to get his feet upon the stable earth.

But the major impulse was still levitant, almost exultant. When all was said, it was Mr. Cortwright's rose-colored view of the immediate future that persisted. "Mirapolis!" It was certainly a name to conjure with; an inspiration on the part of the young woman who had chosen it.

Brouillard saw the projected streets pointing away into the four quarters of the night. It asked for little effort of the imagination to picture them as the streets of a city-lighted, paved, and busy with traffic. Would the miracle be wrought? And if it should be, was there any possibility that in time the building of the great dam and the reclamation of the Buckskin Desert would become secondary in importance to the preservation of Mirapolis?

It seemed highly incredible; before the little dinner and the social evening Brouillard would have said it was blankly impossible. But it is only fools and dead men who cannot admit a changing angle in the point of view. At first Brouillard laid it to the champagne, forgetting that he had permitted but a single refilling of his glass. Not then, nor for many days, did he suspect that it was his first deep draught of a far headier wine that sent the blood laughing through his veins as he strode down Chigringo Avenue to his darkened office quarters-the wine of the vintner whose name is Graft.

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