What has started this sudden excitement about iron? I wonder what is in the wind? just as sure as I'm alive this moment, there's something tremendous stirring in iron speculation" [here Hawkins got up and began to pace the floor with excited eyes and with gesturing hands]--"something enormous going on in iron, without the shadow of a doubt, and here I sit mousing in the dark and never knowing anything about it; great heaven, what an escape I've made! this underhanded mercenary creature might have taken me up--and ruined me! but I have escaped, and I warrant me I'll not put my foot into--"
He stopped and turned toward the stranger; saying:
"I have made you a proposition, you have not accepted it, and I desire that you will consider that I have made none. At the same time my conscience will not allow me to--. Please alter the figures I named to thirty thousand dollars, if you will, and let the proposition go to the company--I will stick to it if it breaks my heart!" The stranger looked amused, and there was a pretty well defined touch of surprise in his expression, too, but Hawkins never noticed it. Indeed he scarcely noticed anything or knew what he was about. The man left; Hawkins flung himself into a chair; thought a few moments, then glanced around, looked frightened, sprang to the door----
"Too late--too late! He's gone! Fool that I am! always a fool! Thirty thousand--ass that I am! Oh, why didn't I say fifty thousand!"
He plunged his hands into his hair and leaned his elbows on his knees, and fell to rocking himself back and forth in anguish. Mrs. Hawkins sprang in, beaming:
"Oh, con-found the con-founded--con-found it, Nancy. I've gone and done it, now!"
"Done what Si for mercy's sake!"
"Done everything! Ruined everything!"
"Tell me, tell me, tell me! Don't keep a body in such suspense. Didn't he buy, after all? Didn't he make an offer?"
Offer? He offered $10,000 for our land, and----"
"Thank the good providence from the very bottom of my heart of hearts! What sort of ruin do you call that, Si!"
"Nancy, do you suppose I listened to such a preposterous proposition? No! Thank fortune I'm not a simpleton! I saw through the pretty scheme in a second. It's a vast iron speculation!--millions upon millions in it! But fool as I am I told him he could have half the iron property for thirty thousand--and if I only had him back here he couldn't touch it for a cent less than a quarter of a million!"
Mrs. Hawkins looked up white and despairing:
"You threw away this chance, you let this man go, and we in this awful trouble? You don't mean it, you can't mean it!"
"Throw it away? Catch me at it! Why woman, do you suppose that man don't know what he is about? Bless you, he'll be back fast enough to- morrow."
"Never, never, never. He never will comeback. I don't know what is to become of us. I don't know what in the world is to become of us."
A shade of uneasiness came into Hawkins's face. He said:
"Why, Nancy, you--you can't believe what you are saying."
"Believe it, indeed? I know it, Si. And I know that we haven't a cent in the world, and we've sent ten thousand dollars a-begging."
"Nancy, you frighten me. Now could that man--is it possible that I-- hanged if I don't believe I have missed a chance! Don't grieve, Nancy, don't grieve. I'll go right after him. I'll take--I'll take--what a fool I am!--I'll take anything he'll give!"
The next instant he left the house on a run. But the man was no longer in the town. Nobody knew where he belonged or whither he had gone. Hawkins came slowly back, watching wistfully but hopelessly for the stranger, and lowering his price steadily with his sinking heart. And when his foot finally pressed his own threshold, the value he held the entire Tennessee property at was five hundred dollars--two hundred down and the rest in three equal annual payments, without interest.
There was a sad gathering at the Hawkins fireside the next night. All the children were present but Clay.