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   Chapter 7 “AT OUR PRICE ”

Carnac's Folly, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 14443

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


West of the city of Montreal were the works and the offices of John Grier. Here it was that a thing was done without which there might have been no real story to tell. It was a night which marked the close of the financial year of the firm.

Upon John Grier had come Carnac. He had brought with him a small statue of a riverman with flannel shirt, scarf about the waist, thick defiant trousers and well-weaponed boots. It was a real figure of the river, buoyant, daring, almost vicious. The head was bare; there were plain gold rings in the ears; and the stark, half-malevolent eyes looked out, as though searching for a jam of logs or some peril of the river. In the horny right hand was a defiant pike-pole, its handle thrust forward, its steel spike stabbing the ground.

At first glance, Carnac saw that John Grier was getting worn and old. The eyes were not so flashing as they once were; the lips were curled in a half-cynical mood. The old look of activity was fading; something vital had struck soul and body. He had had a great year. He had fought Belloc and his son Fabian successfully; he had laid new plans and strengthened his position.

Tarboe coming into the business had made all the difference to him. Tarboe had imagination, skill and decision, he seldom lost his temper; he kept a strong hand upon himself. His control of men was marvellous; his knowledge of finance was instinctive; his capacity for organization was rare, and he had health unbounded and serene. It was hard to tell what were the principles controlling Tarboe-there was always an element of suspicion in his brown and brilliant eyes. Yet he loved work. The wind of energy seemed to blow through his careless hair. His hands were like iron and steel; his lips were quick and friendly, or ruthless, as seemed needed. To John Grier's eyes he was the epitome of civilization-the warrior without a soul.

When Carnac came in now with the statue tucked under his arm, smiling and self-contained, it seemed as though something had been done by Fate to flaunt John Grier.

With a nod, Carnac put the statue on the table in front of the old man, and said: "It's all right, isn't it? I've lifted that out of the river-life. That's one of the best men you ever had, and he's only one of a thousand. He doesn't belong anywhere. He's a rover, an adventurer, a wanton of the waters. Look at him. He's all right, isn't he?" He asked this again.

The timber-man waved the statue aside, and looked at the youth with critical eyes. "I've just been making up the accounts for the year," he said. "It's been the best year I've had in seven. I've taken the starch out of Belloc and Fabian. I've broken the back of their opposition-I've got it like a twig in iron teeth."

"Yes, Tarboe's been some use, hasn't he?" was the suggestive response.

John Grier's eyes hardened. "You might have done it. You had it in you. The staff of life-courage and daring-were yours, and you wouldn't take it on. What's the result? I've got a man who's worth two of Fabian and Belloc. And you"-he held up a piece of paper-"see that," he broke off. "See that. It's my record. That's what I'm worth. That's what you might have handled!" He took a cigar from his pocket, cut off the blunt end, and continued: "You threw your chance aside." He tapped the paper with the point of the cigar. "That's what Tarboe has helped do. What have you got to show?" He pointed to the statue. "I won't say it ain't good. It's a live man from the river. But what do I want with that, when I can have the original man himself! My boy, the great game of life is to fight hard, and never to give in. If you keep your eyes open, things'll happen that'll bring what you want."

He stood up, striking a match to light his cigar. It was dusk, and the light of the match gave a curious, fantastic glimmer to his powerful, weird, haggard face. He was like some remnant of a great life, loose in a careless world.

"I tell you," he said, the smoke leaking from his mouth like a drift of snow, "the only thing worth doing is making the things that matter in the commerce and politics of the world."

"I didn't know you were a politician," said Carnac. "Of course I'm a politician," was the inflammable reply. "What's commerce without politics? It's politics that makes the commerce possible. There's that fellow Barouche-Barode Barouche-he's got no money, but he's a Minister, and he can make you rich or poor by planning legislation at Ottawa that'll benefit or hamper you. That's the kind of business that's worth doing-seeing into the future, fashioning laws that make good men happy and bad men afraid. Don't I know! I'm a master-man in my business; nothing defeats me. To me, a forest of wild wood is the future palace of a Prime Minister. A great river is a pathway to the palace, and all the thousands of men that work the river are the adventurers that bring the booty home-"

"That bring 'the palace to Paris,' eh!" interrupted Carnac, laughing.

"Paris be damned-that bring the forest to Quebec. How long did it take you to make that?" he added with a nod towards the statue.

"Oh, I did it in a day-six hours, I think; and he stood like that for three hours out of the six. He was great, but he'd no more sense of civilization than I have of Heaven."

"You don't need to have a sense of Heaven, you need to have a sense of Hell. That prevents you from spoiling your own show. You're playing with life's vital things."

"I wonder how much you've got out of it all, father," Carnac remarked with a smile. He lit a cigarette. "You do your job in style. It's been a great career, yours. You've made your big business out of nothing."

"I had something to start with. Your grandfather had a business worth not much, but it was a business, and the fundamental thing is to have machinery to work with when you start life. I had that. My father was narrow, contracted and a blunderer, but he made good in a small way."

"And you in a big way," said Carnac, with admiration and criticism in his eyes.

He realized that John Grier had summed him up fairly when he said he was playing with life's vital things. Somehow, he saw the other had a grip upon essentials lacking in himself; he had his tooth in the orange, as it were, and was sucking the juice of good profit from his labours. Yet he knew how much trickery and vital evasion and harsh aggression there were in his father's business life.

As yet he had never seen Tarboe-he had been away in the country the whole year nearly-but he imagined a man of strength, abilities, penetration and deep power. He knew that only a man with savage instincts could work successfully with John Grier; he knew that Grier was without mercy in his business, and that his best year's work had been marked by a mandatory power which only a malevolent policy could produce. Yet, somehow, he had a feeling that Tarboe had a steadying influence on John Grier. The old man was not so uncontrolled as in bygone days.

"I'd like to see Tarboe," Carnac said suddenly. "He ain't the same as you," snapped John Grier. "He's bigger, broader, and buskier." A malicious smile crossed over his face. "He's a bandit-that's what he is. He

's got a chest like a horse and lungs like the ocean. When he's got a thing, he's got it like a nail in a branch of young elm. He's a dandy, that fellow." Suddenly passion came to his eyes. "You might have done it, you've got the brains, and the sense, but you ain't got the ambition. You keep feeling for a thousand things instead of keeping your grip on one. The man that succeeds fastens hard on what he wants to do-the one big thing, and he does it, thinking of naught else."

"Well, that's good preaching," remarked Carnac coolly. "But it doesn't mean that a man should stick to one thing, if he finds out he's been wrong about it? We all make mistakes. Perhaps some day I'll wish I'd gone with you."

Grimness came into the old man's face. Something came into his eyes that was strange and revealing.

"Well, I hope you will. But you had your chance with me, and you threw it down like a piece of rotten leather."

"I don't cost you anything," returned Carnac. "I've paid my own way a long time-with mother's help."

"And you're twenty-six years old, and what have you got? Enough to give you bread from day to day-no more. I was worth seventy thousand dollars when I was your age. I'm worth enough to make a prince rich, and if I'd been treated right by those I brought into the world I'd be worth twice as much. Fabian was good as far as he went, but he was a coward. You"-a look of fury entered the dark eyes-"you were no coward, but you didn't care a damn. You wanted to paddle about with muck of imagination-" he pointed to the statue on the table.

"Why, your business has been great because of your imagination," was the retort. "You saw things ahead with the artist's eye. You planned with the artist's mind; and brought forth what's to your honour and credit-and the piling up of your bank balance. The only thing that could have induced me to work in your business is the looking ahead and planning, seeing the one thing to be played off against the other, the fighting of strong men, the politics, all the forces which go to make or break your business. Well, I didn't do it, and I'm not sorry. I have a gift which, by training and development, will give me a place among the men who do things, if I have good luck-good luck!"

He dwelt upon these last words with an intensity which dreaded something. There was retrospection in his eyes. A cloud seemed to cross his face.

A strong step crunching the path stopped the conversation, and presently there appeared the figure of Tarboe. Certainly the new life had not changed Tarboe, had not altered his sturdy, strenuous nature. His brown eyes under the rough thatch of his eyebrow took in the room with lightning glance, and he nodded respectfully, yet with great friendliness, at John Grier. He seemed to have news, and he glanced with doubt at Carnac.

John Grier understood. "Go ahead. What's happened?"

"Nothing that can't wait till I'm introduced to your son," rejoined Tarboe.

With a friendly look, free from all furtiveness, Carnac reached out a hand, small, graceful, firm. As Tarboe grasped it in his own big paw, he was conscious of a strength in the grip which told him that the physical capacity of the "painter-fellow," as he afterwards called Carnac, had points worthy of respect. On the instant, there was admiration on the part of each-admiration and dislike. Carnac liked the new-comer for his healthy bearing, for the iron hardness of his head, and for the intelligence of his dark eyes. He disliked him, however, for something that made him critical of his father, something covert and devilishly alert. Both John Grier and Tarboe were like two old backwoodsmen, eager to reach their goal, and somewhat indifferent to the paths by which they travelled to it.

Tarboe, on the other hand, admired the frank, pleasant face of the young man, which carried still the irresponsibility of youth, but which conveyed to the watchful eye a brave independence, a fervid, and perhaps futile, challenge to all the world. Tarboe understood that this young man had a frankness dangerous to the business of life, yet which, properly applied, might bring great results. He disliked Carnac for his uncalculating candour; but he realized that, behind all, was something disturbing to his life.

"It's a woman," Tarboe said to himself, "it's a woman. He's made a fool of himself."

Tarboe was right. He had done what no one else had done-he had pierced the cloud surrounding Carnac: it was a woman.

"I hear you're pulling things off here," remarked Carnac civilly. "He says"-pointing to John Grier-"that you're making the enemy squirm."

Tarboe nodded, and a half-stealthy smile crept across his face. "I don't think we've lost anything coming our way," he replied. "We've had good luck-"

"And our eyes were open," intervened John Grier. "You push the brush and use the chisel, don't you?" asked Tarboe in spite of himself with slight scorn in his tone.

"I push the chisel and use the brush," answered Carnac, smilingly correcting him.

"That's a good thing. Is it yours?" asked Tarboe, nodding and pointing to the statue of the riverman. Carnac nodded. "Yes, I did that one day. I'd like to do you, if you'd let me."

The young giant waved a brawny hand and laughed. He looked down at his knee-boots, with their muddied soles, and then at the statue again on the table. "I don't mind you're doing me. Turn about is fair play.

"I've done you out of your job." Then he added to the old man: "It's good news I've got. I've made the contract with the French firm at our price."

"At our price!" remarked the other with a grim smile. "For the lot?"

"Yes, for the lot, and I've made the contracts with the ships to carry it."

"At our price?" again asked the old man. Tarboe nodded. "Just a little better."

"I wouldn't have believed those two things could have been done in the time." Grier rubbed his hands cheerfully. "That's a good day's work. It's the best you've done since you've come."

Carnac watched the scene with interest. No envy moved him, his soul was free from malice. Evidently Tarboe was a man of power. Ruthless he might be, ruthless and unsparing, but a man of power.

At that instant a clerk entered with a letter in his hand. "Mrs. Grier said to give you this," he remarked to Carnac, handing it to him.

Carnac took it and the clerk departed. The letter had an American postmark, and the handwriting on the letter brought trouble to his eyes. He composed himself, however, and tore off the end of the envelope, taking out the letter.

It was brief. It contained only a few lines, but as Carnac read them the colour left his face. "Good God!" he said to himself. Then he put the paper in his pocket, and, with a forced smile and nod to his father and Tarboe, left the office.

"That's queer. The letter seemed to get him in the vitals," said John Grier with surprise.

Tarboe nodded, and said to himself: "It's a woman all right." He smiled to himself also. He had wondered why Carnac and Junia Shale had not come to an understanding. The letter which had turned Carnac pale was the interpretation.

"Say, sit down, Tarboe," said John Grier. "I want to talk with you."

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