I lowered it. “Well, say what you have to say,” I said to him.
“Leroux is a devil!” he burst out, with no pretended passion. “I want you to help me, M. Hewlett, and I can help you in a way you do not dream of. I am not one of his kind, to take his orders. Why in Quebec he would be like the dirt beneath my feet. He has a hold over me; he tempted me to gamble in one of his houses, and I—well, he has a hold over me. But he shall not drive me into murder. M. Hewlett, how much do you think this seigniory is worth?”
“I am not a financier,” I answered. “Some half a million dollars, perhaps.”
He came close to me and hissed into my ear: “Monsieur, there is more gold in these rocks than anywhere in the world! Look here! Here!”
He stooped down and began tossing pebbles at my feet. But they were pebbles of pure gold, and each one of them was as large as the first joint of my thumb. And I had misjudged his courage, I think, for it was avarice and not fear that made him tremble.
So that was Lacroix’s master-passion! I had always associated it with decrepit old age, as in the case of Charles Duchaine.
I looked into the cave. Lacroix was bending over a great heap of sacks, piled almost to the roof. They were sacks of earth, but the earth was naked with gold, and I saw nuggets glittering in it.
“It is everywhere, monsieur!” cried Lacroix. “In this stream, in these hills, too. You can gather a mortarful of earth anywhere, and it will show colour when it is washed. We found this place together——”
“You and Leroux?”
“No! I and——”
He broke off suddenly and eyed me with furtive cunning.
“Yes, yes, monsieur, Leroux and I. And we two worked here together, with nothing more than picks and shovels and mortars and pestles, Leroux and I. There was nobody else. We slept here when Duchaine thought we were in Quebec. For days and days we washed and dug, and we have hardly scratched the surface. Monsieur, it is the Mother Lode, it is the world’s treasure-house! There are millions upon millions here!”
I understood now why the provisions had been stored there. And I had passed by and never known that there was an ounce of gold! But——
“There are three blankets here,” I said.
“Yes, yes, monsieur!” cried Lacroix eagerly. “I suffer much from cold. Two of them are mine, and Leroux has only one. It is the richest gold deposit in the world, M. Hewlett, and neither Raoul nor Jean Petitjean knows the secret—only Leroux and I. One cannot light upon this place save by a miracle of chance, such as brought you here. God put this treasure in these hills, and He did not mean it to be found.”
I grasped him by the shoulder. “Do you see what this means?” I shouted.
“It means a glorious life!” he cried. “All the wealth in the world——”